For as little trouble I had putting together the best songs list in the first half of this 2017 Best Of feature, I had a devil of a time deciding what albums to leave out of the final few spots of the albums list. There were a couple late comers to the nominee pool that made things hard to finalize, and so of course I had to leave a handful out. A few of them I haven’t even written reviews for or had a chance to discuss on the MSRcast yet (though I will). One of these was Aetherian’s The Untamed Wilderness, a mid-November find on the Spotify New Metal Tracks playlist, being a carefully constructed merger of melo-death with classic metal song structures that reminds me of a Gothenburg-ian Opeth. Another hard cut was Wolfheart’s Tyhjyys, a thoroughly enjoyable record that struck a balance between progressive metal and melo-death albeit with some simplicity via The Black Album era Metallica (not a slight I promise!). I was also aggrieved to cut Iced Earth’s Incorruptible, because I thought it would for sure make the list all those months ago, it just got crowded out over time (and played less than others). I was late in discovering but loved Power Trip’s Nightmare Logic, and I also feel the need to shout out Dragonforce’s Reaching Into Infinity, both albums being an absolute blast to listen to. In a year of mostly serious and introspective metal releases (my list being no exception), they were reminders that metal can and should be fun sometimes too.
1. Unleash the Archers – Apex:
Here it is then, my most listened to album of 2017, one that’s been on constant rotation ever since first coming to my attention way back in late June. I remember blasting it in the car as I sped through Houston’s spaghetti bowl of freeways on the way to see Iron Maiden play at the Toyota Center, and as openers Ghost were onstage wearing out my welcome, I wished that Unleash the Archers could have opened the show instead. It was the album I blared before and after work on exhausting, sweat-drenched, jungle humidity days throughout the summer. It was my go to soundtrack during those moments where my bad mood threatened to sour the whole day, and I was able to do that likely ridiculous looking mix of slight headbanging (headnodding?), air guitar, and mouth drumming (where you click and clack your jaw and tongue along to the beat… is that only me?) along to these songs to work off the angst. It was the album I returned to in trying to distract myself during the worst, worry-filled moments of Hurricane Harvey where flood waters were rising mere streets away from me and I wondered if I would have a dry car and apartment at the end of it all. Mostly I just listened to it because in a year full of music that was largely dark, bleak and introspective, Apex was an absolute blast to play, a genuinely fun album from start to finish.
But it didn’t just make number one on this list because it was my most listened to, although that is a solid metric for being honest about these things. No, Apex landed atop the list because it is packed with unbelievably well crafted songs that crackle with excitement and sheer kinetic energy. This is the band’s watershed moment, an album that towers above anything they’ve done previously, in the same way that Number of the Beast pointed towards a far greater ceiling for Iron Maiden’s sound and songwriting abilities. That comparison is not idly thrown out, because what Unleash the Archers do so well is recapturing the joy and excitement that Maiden was capable of achieving during those formative mid-80s “golden years”. Their approach to traditional metal is rooted in that hallowed Steve Harris gallop, but with modern power metal influences shaping the texture of their sound to prevent them from sounding like only a throwback. This mix defines full speed chargers like “The Matriarch”, and “The Coward’s Way”, but its their ability to go for the grand, the epic overture of towering mountains like “Cleanse the Bloodline” (Brittney Hayes’ steel lungs providing the vocal performance of the year during the chorus) and the best songs listee title track where the band truly transcends genre-boundaries. This is an album for anyone who calls themselves a metal fan, regardless of whether its a Mayhem or Blind Guardian back patch on your battle jacket.
2. Satyricon – Deep Calleth Upon Deep:
Chalk it up to Deep Calleth Upon Deep being the second album in Satyricon’s new approach to sound, that being the deconstruction of black metal sonics that has moved them into fresh creative territory. Or maybe it really did have something to do with Satyr’s recent brush with mortality that is the amorphous force driving his creative demons to new heights this time around. What the band was trying to achieve with 2013’s confusion inducing self-titled album was hard to discern by almost everyone, rejecting the black n’ roll of their previous three albums by stripping away surface aggression of continuous riffs and accelerating rhythms. It resulted in a sound that was full of slow moving tempos, lots of space between instruments, an almost airy atmosphere that was pushed up front as the centerpiece at times. Black metal is a normally dense, compressed approach to metal, and Satyricon was its complete opposite in everything except for its bleak tone. Its an album that I’ve understood more (and enjoyed more) over time, particularly after hearing where they went on its sequel, but at the time it left me wondering where the band intended on taking their new found direction.
The answer then is that Satyricon could be seen as a complete reboot of the band’s sound, a thoughtful re-imagining of how they perceived black metal could sound. These types of grand ideas rarely work out in one go, and Deep Calleth Upon Deep as its sequel is the real fruit of all that labor, with the gradual mixing back in of a touch more aggression via riffs and Frost’s even more primitive than usual percussion. Interesting that the drums sound more menacing when Frost was forced to abstain from his usual dizzying array of fills and counter tempos. Then there’s the stuff that counts of course, the songwriting —- and here Satyr is at his most inspired and creative that we’ve seen him since the Now, Diabolical era. The best songs list topping “To Your Brethren In The Dark” is riveting, full of coiled energy, and a thousand hidden meanings. There’s a primitive (that word again!) spirituality to “The Ghosts of Rome”, made alive by the use of tenor Hakon Kornstad, his strange, mournful wailing making me think of that scene in Conan the Barbarian where Valeria is trying to ward off those hellish spirits around Conan’s near-dying body. Its an arguable point to say that this is Satyricon’s best album —- certain folks just won’t hear of anything being considered over Nemesis Divina, and I don’t think anything I could say would convince them. But it is shockingly excellent for a band in the third phase of redefining their sound, and gives them a masterpiece for each one of those wildly different eras, an achievement unparalleled in metal.
3. Sorcerer – Crowning of the Fire King:
As I mentioned in their entry on my best songs list for “Unbearable Sorrow”, Sorcerer came out of nowhere in late October to nearly dominate my attention for the final two months of the year. I’m still kicking myself that they slipped under my radar with their excellent comeback album In The Shadow Of The Inverted Cross in 2015. Here’s a band that contains one of my favorite guitarists in metal, Mr. Kristian Niemann of Therion fame and glory, and its a joy to hear him play in that inimitable style once again. He’s one of the most melodically fluid and natural sounding guitarists I’ve ever heard, never failing to conjure up a big batch of dreamlike melodies that swirl and flow. When he left Therion I never thought he’d find a better place for him to be as a creative outlet, but Sweden’s Sorcerer are honestly the next best thing. That turns out not to be a coincidence either, given that previous Therion vocalist alum Anders Engberg is one of its co-founders, and I’m guessing that when he and his old bandmate Johnny Hagel decided to restart the band, Kristian was the first person they thought of. I know I’ve blindsided a few of you by not writing anything about these guys well before these year end lists, but better late than never right?
Sorcerer create a darkened blend of Candlemass-ian doom metal with Kamelot style prog-power melodicism, Engberg’s vocal style being at times very baritone, while still capable of soaring heights in his upper register. I could throw out all the appropriate adjectives on how to describe the songwriting here —- intelligent, sophisticated, artful —- but that really won’t give you a good idea of the magic of The Crowning of the Fire King. For me anyway, there’s a cosmically oriented spirituality running throughout this album in the way that recalls Kristian’s best work in Therion on albums like Gothic Kabbalah and of course the twin masterpieces Sirius B and Lemuria. The very opening guitar pattern on “Abandoned By The Gods” for example has that very effect, the result of Kristian being the kind of guitarist whose playing could say more in a smaller amount of space than a vocalist could convey. On the stunning “Unbearable Sorrow”, he matches Engberg’s anguished, gorgeous vocal melody with a stunning lead guitar pattern that sounds like he’s trying to recreate the heavens. I don’t know how he does it, but Kristian has always had that innate sense of creating guitar melodies that are panoramic, as if everything in the song (and the cosmos) rotates around his playing. The results are not only otherworldly, but create another voice to cry out the invisible emotions not reachable by human vocal chords —- musical dark matter then.
4. Cradle of Filth – Cryptoriana: The Seductiveness of Decay:
Here’s how I know Cradle of Filth is in the midst of an artistic career renaissance that is winning back over longtime fans like myself and slowly spreading the word to potential new ones —- two metal loving buddies of mine have given their thumbs up to Cryptoriana, after hearing me proselytize about it for months now. They both disliked Dani Filth’s vocals before, his tendency to go to shrill, ear-piercing heights and largely stay there. Well those days seem to be well past the diminutive vocalist, with his performances on this new album as well as 2015’s Hammer of the Witches seeing him stake out more of a fierce mid-range growl, punctuated by his deep, demonic bellow with only cursory trips into ear-bleeding, shrieking territory. And I think he’s responding to the awesomeness of the riffs here too, the metallic B-12 shot that relatively new guitarists Richard Shaw and Ashok injected into the band’s musical repertoire. They deepened the band’s sound by doing away with tired tremolo riff patterns heard on past Cradle albums and instead unleashing a battery of chunky, menacing death metal riffing ala Behemoth. Oh the nods to Iron Maiden are still there, and things are as melodic as ever, but they avoid giving in to this band’s history of musical tropes, those patterns and formulaic riff sequences that grew tiresome over time.
The result of this forced musical shift was to inspire Dani to be a better vocalist, not only in the aggressiveness of his delivery but in his control as well, he’s never been this impressive before. He sounds inspired and revitalized, and you can hear him utterly destroy on “The Night At Catafalque Manor”, where the crackling intensity of his performance is only matched by the frenzied rhythmic assault and epic lead guitar melodies. His still new guitarists (only two albums in) seem to have an innate understanding of how to steer the songwriting into surprising and unexpected directions, both to us and to their boss. On “You Will Know The Lion By His Claw”, they plunge straight away into deep death metal passages, and Dani tunnels in the middle of their slabs of riffs with a hellish, doom-inflected death metal growl. He’s not going for the typical Dani Filth maneuver, to go high and let his voice ride the wave over the top —- he’s choosing to be a part of the darkened sonic assault here, an essential part of the overall brutality. The supremely talented Lindsay Schoolcraft’s keyboard work is restrained, taking a more elegantly symphonic approach rather than clumsily piling on layers and layers of atmospherics, and her vocal work throughout the album is a perfect foil to Dani extreme aggression here (check “Achingly Beautiful” for proof). I was thrilled and surprised by Hammer of the Witches, it really was a tremendous album; but the songwriting on Cryptoriana is absolutely thrilling, capturing the dark majesty of the band’s mid-90’s era while rattling our teeth harder than ever.
5. Myrkur – Mareridt:
I think its remarkable to look back on how folk metal was rejuvenated both as a subgenre and as an idea or an expression this past year. The last cut I made before coming to this final ten as my albums of the year was Eluveitie’s acoustic based Evocation II – Pantheon, a bright and vibrant collection of rustic, woodland European folk that sounded not only inspired, but authentic. That last adjective is one that would raise a small internet outcry if directed at Myrkur, but in my opinion, the Danish-born United States based Amalie Bruun has found her true, authentic voice on this genre bending album. In the process she’s unwittingly perhaps stumbled upon one of the most creative and emotionally charged folk metal releases of the past fifteen years. I wrote that her previous album M’s fatal flaw was its inability to detach itself from its very overt second wave Norwegian black metal influences. Here she steps back from any notion that she has to outdo that album’s bleak oeuvre, and instead she pushes forward her other influences ranging from female inspirations like Chelsea Wolfe (who guests on “Funeral”) to Nordic folk to classical music. The black metal is still there, but she finds ways to subvert traditional structures, for example her juxtaposing ethereal clean vocals over tremolo riffing on “Ulvinde”. Its not a gimmick or a cheap trick, the actual musical effect is haunting and beautiful, but still dark and a little unsettling.
I’m not sure about who else Bruun herself would list as an influence, but I hear shades of Tori Amos, Bjork, and one of my favorite chanteuses in Loreena McKennitt. I also can’t help but hear a strong Dead Can Dance feel in the album highlight “Death of Days”, its swirling melody utterly entrancing and hypnotic. On “Kaetteren”, we’re treated to the kind of rustic, Nordic folk music that paints the scene of an evening fire on a hilltop overlooking Oslo, or for us flatlander southerners, music reminiscent of what we’d want to hear at the renaissance festival. It reminds me of the kind of stuff we heard Otyg do way back in folk metal’s infancy. At the album’s heaviest moments, Bruun finds ways to take black metal’s fervor and manipulate it to heighten its impact, such as on “Maneblot”, where during a quieter violin passage midway through the song, you hear the whispered strains of black metal fury just on the edges of the soundscape, slowly growing louder before crashing into the forefront. Its akin to water breaking through the hold of an old wooden ship and flooding everything. In a year when we were all bombarded with news and information in an exhausting, unrelenting manner, I found myself drawn to music that reflected a sense of the natural and the organic —- that spirit runs throughout Mareridt.
6. Vintersorg – Till fjälls, del II:
I probably wouldn’t be repeating myself so much about 2017 being the year of a folk metal revival if it wasn’t for the fact that genre pioneer Vintersorg was a major part of this renaissance. He’s one of the old guard, his early solo works pioneering examples of the sound, expanding on the two classic folk metal masterpieces he recorded with his band Otyg in ’98/99 (not to forget the handful of demos they were doing as early as ’95, also the same year Fenriz and Satyr released the oft-forgotten but widely influential at the time Nordavind album from Storm, their one-off side project). I started listening to Vintersorg in 2000 with Cosmic Genesis, and he was a revelation, one of those artists who was delivering a sound and musical concept that upon first hearing, I realized I had been longing for all my years as a music fan. He’s made a slow return to his folk roots over the course of his past few albums, but it wasn’t until this year with Till fjälls, del II that he really tapped into the songwriting style that was rooted in his classic, pioneering early folk metal of Till fjälls and Odenmarkens Son. This album is full of song structures in that mode —- blistering riffs intertwined with acoustic guitar melodies, Vintersorg’s layering of his trademark majestic baritone “oooohhs” over the top of choruses for that old world sound, its all here.
Of course, whats most essential here is that Vintersorg has written some of the finest material of his career, spiritual folk metal that we haven’t heard from him in well over a decade. This is music infused with the rustic feeling of nature and the mountains, yet also of deeply existential and scientific pondering of our place within this context. On a gorgeous gem like “Vårflod”, Falkenbach-esque chiming acoustic chords usher in his old Otyg bandmate Cia Hedmark’s emotive singing about the days growing long and the nights getting shorter (the song title translates to “spring flow”). Vintersorg’s bellowing chorus here is sublime, catchy in its Swedish phrasing but also epic, with glistening horns trumpeting in the distance, as if roaring their praise for the changing of the seasons. He also understands just how acoustic guitars can be used for more than just pretty intros and outros —- take “Allt Mellan Himmel Och Jord”, where the mid song acoustic bridge keeps the tempo quick and alert, subtly increasing the tension like someone pulling back a rubber band before letting loose with hammering snare hits and some dizzying progressive riffs. Vintersorg himself described this album as “heartfelt”, music that arose when he didn’t even realize he was writing a sequel to Till fjälls, and indeed nothing about this seems contrived or forced (a rarity for musical sequels). This is the folk metal I fell in love with way back in the subgenre’s infancy —- its godfather has returned with the musical equivalent to the beacon of Minas Tirith. The beacons are lit!
7. Aeternam – Ruins of Empires:
If you missed out on Aeternam’s sweeping, bombastic musical adventure that was Ruins of Empires, you deprived yourself of one of the year’s most fun and creative metal albums. Aeternam are one of the newer, noteworthy bands playing a style that has been long dubbed “Oriental Metal”, as flawed and controversial as that term is among the intelligentsia. Unlike subgenre godfathers Orphaned Land who began their sound with a bedrock of old school death metal influences, Aeternam’s sound is far more rooted in Gothenburg melodic death metal territory. Like Orphaned Land, the band’s sound is progressive by the very nature of adding in pan-Arabic folk musical influences, resulting in the richly melodic paintbrush strokes that adorn Ruins of Empires. These guys can be as brutal as Behemoth and Septic Flesh, but as wildly orchestral as Dimmu Borgir in their grandest moments, with the ambition of Therion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the album centerpiece “Fallen Is the Simulacrum of Bel”, a song that rings out from the start with a dramatic flourish of choral voices, exotic violin melodies, and a Blind Guardian rhythmic swagger before the death metal comes punching its way through against a backdrop of discordant, Arabic scale sounding guitar patterns. The guitar work throughout by vocalist/guitarist Achraf Loudiy is superb, playing on the level that I associate with masters like Andre Olbrich and Jesper Stromblad.
Where they really got me hooked was just how well Loudiy and company pulled off the beautiful ethnic folk music of “The Keeper of Shangri-La”, a stunning piece built on rich Arabic instrumentation (the striking exception being the erhu, a traditional Chinese string instrument). Here Loudiy gets to showcase his melodic singing voice, and he sounds like a slightly accented, more soulful Matt Heafy, his role here as a desert bard speaking of tales “deep in a forgotten land”. Lesser bands would fumble this type of thing, but Aeternam has the songwriting and musical chops to deliver it, and the imagination to make it soar and sink deep within our psyche. I felt the same way on the other non-metal track, “Nightfall In Numidia”, a shorter track but no less imaginative, and though I have no knowledge of what or where Numidia is, I come away from every listen of that track with a picture of it in my mind’s eye, and that’s enough. So much average or merely passable metal that makes attempts at grandeur just resides in our listening experiences on a surface level, but Aeternam’s gift is delivering soundscapes that come alive like the best written fiction. I’ve been a big fan of Oriental metal in general, Orphaned Land and Myrath being two obvious loves, but also of the epic black metal of Melechesh and a few others. But Aeternam have really staked their claim as one of the genre’s leading lights with this inspired album, they are the Blind Guardian of the subgenre, storytellers who possess the musicality to take us elsewhere.
8. November’s Doom – Hamartia:
I consider myself fairly new to November’s Doom, only really being introduced to them in the last few years due to co-hosting the MSRcast where Cary G is a
big (scratch that, huge) fan of the band, a longtime one at that. Although I had scoured their discography in that time, Hamartia was my first real, proper introduction to their music, and what an introduction it was. Offering up their most melodically accessible album to date, November’s Doom received a minor backlash upon the initial release of this album for an increase in clean melodic vocals and doomy metallic hard rock riffs. At the time I thought those criticisms were ridiculous for a band that had been showing signs of heading in that direction (2014’s Bled White serving as a huge indicator), and I wondered if they would abate over the months that followed. In retrospect I’m realizing that its backlash is similar to Opeth’s around the release of Heritage, especially considering its predecessor Watershed also showed similar signs of moving away from death metal growls —- and in that respect, I guess I can understand some of the grumbling. Unfortunately, I haven’t been seeing this album pop up on a lot of year end lists, and I’m not sure if that’s down to said criticism or if this band just sails under most radars (like they did for me for many years).
That’s a shame really, because beyond the change in musical approach, this is an album of truly inspired songwriting alongside rich musicality that incorporates acoustic sounds and gorgeous piano as much as slabs of granite riffs. A gem like “Ever After” hit my sweet spot for melancholia ala Type O Negative and Charon, with its bleak tone complemented with bursts of elegiac melody (that solo sequence at the 3:42 mark is one of my favorite moments of the year). There’s also a strong Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel influence seeping through here, as heard on “Borderline” and “Hamartia” respectively, both songs where vocalist Paul Kuhr demonstrates tremendous emotive range in his clean delivery. At times, he sounds like a synthesis of Woods of Ypres’ David Gold and Peter Steele. Its not all lighter stuff though, as they’re as heavy as they’ve ever been on moments like “Apostasy” which has a beefy, fattened bottom end that is reminiscent of the Entombed sound. That song employs a long worn trope, the old distant sounding intro that slams immediately into the forefront with a pulverizing riff, but man do they do it so well. The production all across Hamartia is worth praise too, because it seems fewer and fewer albums get the concept of dynamics right these days, but they deliver a properly mixed and mastered full spectrum of audio. On such a varied album like this, that was a crucial element —- here, the heaviness really hits you, and the quieter, more introspective moments are deeply affecting.
9. Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:
I broke my rule about not looking at other best of lists before finalizing mine this year, not a lot of them, but enough to notice that some folks were calling 2017 the year of death metal. It seems that every year is the year of death metal, in my memory anyway, and truth be told I didn’t find myself getting too excited about many of the releases those lists were touting. You’ll notice I didn’t review the new Morbid Angel (Kingdoms Disdained), mainly because I was late on listening to it, but once I did, well… its hasn’t really made an impression with me yet (why does every Morbid Angel album have some new weird production approach?), and I wonder if a lot of the praise its getting seems to be based around it not being Illud Divinum Insanus. Then there were a few people throwing Immolation’s Atonement on their lists, and while I enjoyed that album and it was a step up from Kingdom of Conspiracy, I didn’t come back to it often. Point is, there’s a lot of death metal albums on those lists that are puzzling choices (even the Obituary s/t, which was good fun but again, one of the best albums of the year? Really?).
What was more alarming than some questionable choices was one particularly glaring omission —- that being Evocation’s career watershed The Shadow Archetype. It had the buzzy, lo-fi production of old school Entombed with the instrumental separation of a professional modern recording, the combination packing a sledgehammer level of heaviness all throughout. Evocation also finally found their musical path, straightforward brutality mixed with a complex, progressive edge that resulted in the striking melodicism in tracks like “Imperium Fall”, “Dark Day Sunrise”, and the epic title track. On “Modus Operandi”, the unabashed musicality and melodic thru-line in the instrumental bridge is closer to stuff you’d hear from a progressive power metal band rather than a band who likely would cite Left Hand Path as a defining influence. Yet for an album awash in melody, its still one of the most unrelentingly heavy albums of the year, largely due to that fat, lumbering low-end in rhythm guitar riffs, the car engine rumbling bass, and of course Thomas Josefsson’s blackened, oppressive death metal mouth of Sauron impersonation. Check out “Condemned to the Grave” for the absolute heaviest song of the year (it narrowly missed the best songs list), a song that is both catchy as hell and one of the most sinister sounding performances I’ve ever heard.
10. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper:
I’ve never been as surprised by a metal album of any kind the way I was with Bell Witch and their 84 minute long, single track monolith Mirror Reaper. I think the only time I was this shocked to see myself placing a particular release on my year end list was when Alcest landed at number ten in 2012 with Les Voyages de l’Âme, being a band I had largely deemed as pretentious prior to. You guys know me, funeral doom isn’t really my forte, and the only time I came close to discussing that subgenre was when reviewing Swallow the Sun’s triple disc Songs From the North (and I didn’t grade that third disc very highly at all). I came across this album in late October through BangerTV’s Overkill Reviews, and while I took Blayne Smith’s review with a grain of salt (hey, its hard to tell whether he’s being serious half the time), I did check out the track myself because the clips he played on the show were way more musical than a band consisting of just drums and a bass (for reals!) should sound. And in a moment of old-school spirit, I found the cover art was so freaking excellent that I was intrigued to see if anything on the album justified it. So I found it in its entirety on YouTube and scrubbed through it impatiently at first, almost trying to confirm to myself that it was as boring as I’d expect it to be. I spent a few minutes going through it here and there, and remember being surprised at how such a variety of sounds were being coaxed from a bass guitar, but then as expected I moved onto something else.
But Mirror Reaper didn’t go away, I kept seeing it mentioned in random comments on various metal sites, it kept getting recommended to me on YouTube, and I saw a few metal writers I respect on Twitter raving about it. So I went back to that YouTube upload, and one night when trying to read, I let it play in the background and go its full length. That particular setting unlocked the album for me, and I spent more time paying attention to it than reading American Gods for the umpteenth time. I have no idea how bassist/vocalist Dylan Desmond manages to write such a lengthy, ponderous piece of music —- does he actually write out every single passage and shift in direction? Or does he and drummer Jesse Shreibman simply record for hours, later cutting and pasting things around when editing and utilizing the studio as an instrument? I’m inclined to ignore the latter notion, because everything here sounds deliberate —- not only the direction of the passages that slowly paint a landscape of oppressive sorrow and resigned sadness, but that every note sounds purposeful, a connective artery to the next one. Its a bizarrely affecting listening experience, transcendent at its most outwardly mournful melodic wailing (the 32 minute mark area is noteworthy), and incredibly depressing when it hits a particular motif for sustained passages (particularly the 41 minute area). Some of the most emotional moments occur during the lengthy (of course) clean vocal period towards the second half of the album, where slight bends of the melodic motif and the introduction of a distant organ create a hypnotic effect. One that’s not so laid back that you’d fall asleep however, in fact its unsettling nature makes you focus in more sharply at what’s going on. So at the 1:09:50 mark, when Desmond suddenly ushers in a ringing high note out of the mists, you might be as alarmed as I was and glance about the room to see if you’re still alone.