What a year, its feels like its both taken forever to get through and yet passed in the blink of an eye. I was a bit concerned halfway through around the early summer when I realized that it was a little light on noteworthy releases. My worries were premature however, as 2017 was backloaded in a staggering way, causing myself to pick up the pace in the late summer and early fall just to keep up. The process of putting together my year end lists this time was a bit strange, because I felt that my nominees pool for the albums list was a little shorter than I’d expected, while the songs list was way more stacked than it normally is. I keep written nominee lists for songs and albums going throughout the year, both so I can throw my choices in whenever I’m feeling like I’ve come across a contender, and (primarily) so I don’t have to trawl through my own blog come December to see if I’ve missed anything. As usual, I relied on iTunes stats for play counts to keep myself honest, but this year instinct really led the way. The following songs on this list just stood out clearly among the other nominees and they are absolutely worth a few minutes of your time. Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the best albums list coming soon, before year’s end is the goal!
The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2017:
1. “To Your Brethren In The Dark” – Satyricon (from the album Deep Calleth Upon Deep):
Not only is “To Your Brethren In The Dark” the emotional core of Satyricon’s controversial masterpiece Deep Calleth Upon Deep, its one of the defining songs of their career. Its almost slow-dance like tempo is hypnotic, its spiraling ascending and descending melodic phrasing eerie and suggestive, working to strengthen the captivating allure of this dirge. If the loose theme around Deep Calleth was about the spirituality found in appreciating art while set against the transience of life, this song could apply directly about our own most cherished art form (weighty stuff I know, but consider Satyr’s recent medical scares as its source material and that heaviness is appropriate). The phrase within the lyrics, “… pass the torch to your brethren in the dark…” is so relevant to everyone who loves metal, from the bands and labels to the writers at blogs and magazines to fans buying albums, going to shows, recommending stuff to other fans. There is no governing structure that supports metal music as a subculture or records its history for us, those tasks simply fall to us and its our responsibility to make sure that this music gets passed onto younger generations growing up today. I know this is a very metal blogger take on a song that is far more expansive in its lyrical reach, but its what I took from it. That’s also a testament to its power, as Satyr himself ascribed to it, “A song for the dark towers of the past and those who will rise in the future.”
2. “Apex” – Unleash The Archers (from the album Apex):
No song was more liable to get me a speeding ticket than the title track to Unleash The Archers awesome Apex, an album that not only represents the very best of what power metal has to offer, but has certainly opened up the genre to those who would normally scoff at it. This cut is a perfect example why, eight minutes that feel like three of a Maiden-gallop led charger that builds to the year’s most epic, satisfying chorus. This band is economical in the best sense, riffs are purposeful, built for conducting the crackling energy that underlies Brittney Hayes impassioned vocal melodies. Even the moody intro is a delight, with faintly chiming acoustic strumming underneath a lazily gorgeous open chord sequence, a moment of respite from the dramatic build up that follows and the rocket launch that happens immediately after. There’s real craft here, songwriting with an understanding of the trad/power metal bedrock that makes this kind of music spectacular, coupled with the wisdom of how to avoid the cliches and tropes that so often make it an easy target. In a recent tweet, Adrien Begrand (of Decibel fame) observed that the tastemaker best metal of 2017 lists were sorely lacking in metal that was actually, you know, fun —- I agree, and if said lists were missing out on Unleash the Archers, you can go ahead and ignore them now.
3. “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)” – Wintersun (from the album The Forest Seasons):
For all that I’ve written (controversially) about Wintersun that has aroused the ire of not only the band’s fans but Jari Mäenpää himself, I was eagerly anticipating The Forest Seasons, not to tear it down mind you, but because I genuinely think the guy is supremely talented. I loved the idea behind the concept, a metal re-imagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, it was inventive and fun and made you wonder why no one (Malmsteen perhaps?) hadn’t tried it before. I’m not sure how well it succeeded in the minds of Wintersun fans as an album, I’ve seen a spectrum of opinions ranging every which way but for me I found that the autumn and winter cuts were lacking (ironic given the band’s name). The spring and summer movements however were fresh reminders of just why there’s so much hubbub surrounding this band in the first place. For my part, Mäenpää has never written something as starkly beautiful as the epic folk metal with a power metal engine of “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”. There’s a spirituality heard in the dim orchestral keyboard arrangement that mournfully croons in the air above the noteworthy riff sequence going on in the verse sections. His clean vocal melody in the refrain is not only surprisingly hooky in a Vintersorg-ish way, but soulful even, the kind of thing old school folk metal was built on really. The moment that will send crowds of people headbanging in venues all over Europe is the coiled snake springing to strike in the full on riff assault that occurs at 7:19.
4. “Unbearable Sorrow” – Sorcerer (from the album The Crowning of the Fire King):
Sorcerer is one of those bands who quietly slipped under a lot of radars this year, and their late October opus The Crowning of the Fire King will get unjustly ignored, but hopefully not by you once you hear “Unbearable Sorrow”. This was one of those bands I didn’t actually write a review on but we did cover on the MSRcast, which was my introduction to them and the moment when I realized that this was where ex-Therion guitarist Kristian Niemann had wandered off to after he had left that band. Sorcerer actually began back in the late 80s, released a few demos, and split up in 1995 before ever doing a full length. Finally in 2010 its founding members bassist Johnny Hagel and vocalist Anders Engberg reunited and grabbed some of their Swedish pals to round out the lineup. Engberg is a sublime talent, and for you Therion diehards out there, he might look familiar if you remember the male vocalist onstage from the Wacken 2001 footage off the Celebrators of Becoming DVD box set (he was also on the 2001 live album Live In Midgard). This Therion connection is of course magnified with Niemann’s role as the lead guitarist here, as his distinctive neo-classical, richly melodic style is painted all across this album to stunning results. He was my favorite of the many guitarists that have graced Therion’s lineup, just wonderfully inventive in his writing and possessing a fluidity in his playing that I’ve rarely heard mirrored by anyone else. On “Unbearable Sorrow”, his guitarwork is mystical, other-worldly, darkly beautiful and damn near spiritual in its expressions, and he’s almost topped by Engberg’s powerful, melancholic vocal performance.
5. “The Same Asylum As Before” – Steven Wilson (from the album To The Bone):
While Steven Wilson’s newest album didn’t wow me as much as 2014’s absolute masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase., it did bear a handful of gems, the shiniest among them this slice of Lightbulb Sun era prog-rock. Wilson’s distinctive songwriting style makes it difficult not to look for comparisons to his previous work, despite this song being set amidst an album heavily influenced by 80s ‘intelligent pop’ icons Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Tears For Fears. For all the art-pop ambition of To The Bone, what I mostly got out of it was Wilson returning to the lighter moods and tones of that classic turn of the millennium Porcupine Tree era. I hear it in this song’s chorus, a dichotomy of bummed out lyrics sung by a resigned narrator against a splash of bright, warmly laid back acoustic guitar. The escalating guitar pattern that slices through this lazy summer day is crackling and electric, an unexpected piece of ear candy that has kept me coming back to this song even if I haven’t been tempted to revisit the entire album yet. Also worth commending here is Wilson’s vocal performance, because his delivery in the chorus is sublime, hitting the boyish tenor he’s been avoiding on the past few albums but has achieved so often earlier in his discography. Forlorn Porcupine Tree fans who’ve long fallen off the Wilson wagon should really be giving this track (and the album at that) a spin, because its the closest he’s come to his old band’s sound in almost a decade.
6. “Black Flag” – Iced Earth (from the album Incorruptible):
Iced Earth rebounded with this year’s Incorruptible, after the subtle disappointment that was 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, and the album yielded a pair of absolute classics in “Black Flag” and “Raven Wing”. One could make an argument for either being the best on the album, but I know that the former was simply one of my most listened to songs of the year just based off iTunes play count stats alone. The band recently released an actual music video for this too, just a week or two ago, six months after the album saw the light of the day. If you’ve seen it in all its Master and Commander glory, you’ll get why it took them six months to get it out to the public —- and look, I’m hard on conceptual music vids by metal bands, frequently citing that the budget never covers the ambition. That truth applies this time as well, which is why I linked to the song itself above (though in fairness, the “Black Flag” video is far from the worst I’ve seen this year, one could even call it relatively decent). But I’m getting distracted, because my larger point is that this song’s evocative, scene setting lyrics need no video at all, particularly when Stu Block sings “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. How does that not put a music video of your own in your mind’s eye (or at least memories of playing Assassin’s Creed IV)?
7. “A World Divided” – Pyramaze (from the album Contingent):
Two years ago, I referred to then new Pyramaze vocalist Terje Haroy as one of the most promising new vocal talents in metal, and he certainly lived up to that hype on this year’s Contingent. It wasn’t a perfect album, in fact it was severely lopsided in that its first five cuts were home runs while the latter half of the album seemed lost and directionless. Amidst those first five songs however was the absolute gem “A World Divided”, a deceptively heavy song that lulls you in with a delicate, calming piano melody over much of its first minute, perhaps fooling you into thinking a power ballad was in the works. The great thing about guitarist Jacob Hansen’s production (yes that Jacob Hansen, he joined up after working as their producer/engineer on their last album and is pulling double duty) is that he keeps the keyboards high in the mix above the groove based riffs, and they’re an integral part of the musical fabric here. I know its a small thing, but there’s something delightful about how keyboardist Jonah Weingarten delivers a slowed down shadowing melody underneath underneath Haroy’s soaring vocal melody during the chorus. It speaks to the intelligence of the songwriting and the care put into crafting the soundscape that’s both hard hitting yet also fragile, delicate even. Oh and kudos to the band for actually delivering a high concept music video that was artfully done, and the band even looked great in it (which almost never happens)!
8. “Lvgvs” – Eluveitie (from the album Evocation II – Pantheon):
I loved this song and many, many others off Eluveitie’s first post Anna Murphy and company album, so much so that Evocation II – Pantheon is in the nominee pool for the upcoming albums of the year list. In a year where folk metal experienced something of a quiet artistic renaissance, Eluveitie released an album full of acoustic, European folk inspired music that was imbued with the very spiritual essence of what we loved about rootsy folk metal. It blew away its 2009 predecessor, but more importantly, it gave Eluveitie a bit of breathing room to stand apart from the more modern rock direction its former bandmates took with Cellar Darling. Their secret weapon in pulling this off turned out to be new vocalist Fabienne Erni, her voice light and breezy, providing a new tone in the band’s soundscape. On “Lvgvs”, her vocals are full of genuine warmth, almost reminiscent of Candice Night (of Blackmore’s Night fame), and her performance is surrounded by a stunning array of rustic instrumentation. This is technically not an original song, apparently being a traditional folk tune, but I’m not going to let that prevent me from putting it deservedly on this list —- Eluveitie make it their own here. This was on my playlist for the Texas Renaissance Festival, and it was the song I played when I woke up to the first really chilly winds of November sweeping through. Like the stick of frankincense I was burning that morning, “Lvgvs” was autumn’s musical incense.
9. “Journey To Forever” – Ayreon (from the album The Source):
If you tune into the upcoming MSRcast’s yearly recap episodes (we usually run a two-parter), you’re likely to hear loads about Ayreon’s The Source, the latest album from a band that is among my co-host Cary’s favorites. This album was really my first headlong plunge into Arjen Lucassen’s career defining project and while I certainly didn’t hate it, I didn’t share his extreme love for it for various reasons I outlined in my original review. One thing he and I will agree upon however is that “Journey to Forever” is one of the year’s best songs, bar none. Its got a pair of my all-time favorite vocalists in Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch and Edguy/Avantasia’s Tobias Sammet (joined by Michael Eriksen of Circus Maximus) —- and as impressive as that cast is, it wouldn’t be nearly as special if Lucassen hadn’t penned an incredible song. The chorus is spectacularly joyous, and it opens the song in acapella mode, followed by the beautiful plucking of a mandolin playing a variation on the chorus melody. After the guitars have kicked in, a gorgeous violin decides to swoon alongside everyone else, and at some point a hammond organ gets in on the fun too. Its the best three minutes on the album, in fact, its rather short length being the only serious criticism I can levy at it. If you heard the track and were reminded of his delightful work in The Gentle Storm project he did with Anneke van Giersbergen, you weren’t alone. More of this stuff please Arjen.
10. “Queen Of Hearts Reborn” – Xandria (from the album Theater of Dimensions):
One of the year’s grave disappointments was seeing the way Xandria split with vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen, a break-up that went public when she detailed the circumstances on a social media post. It didn’t paint the band in the best light, and to add to the condemnation were two ex-Xandria vocalists in Manuela Kraller and Lisa Middelhauve weighing in with similar testimony as to how the band treated its frontwomen. I got to see the band live with van Giersbergen a few years back while opening for the Sonata Arctica / Delain North American tour, and she was spectacular, easily one of the best live vocalists I had ever seen. I walked away from that show more impressed with her performance than anything else that night, and instantly decided to give Xandria another shot and began delving into their discography. Their 2017 release Theater of Dimensions is one of the best traditional symphonic metal albums in years, a throwback to a sound pioneered by Nightwish on classics like Wishmaster and Century Child. Its not quite revolutionary stuff then, but I enjoyed the hell out of it earlier this year, and “Queen of Hearts Reborn” was its supreme highlight, a powerful, towering showcase of dramatics and theatricality. I’ll admit, I soured on listening to the band after reading about the way they treated their vocalists, and I’m looking forward to what van Giersbergen will do with her original band Ex Libris. I wish I could’ve written instead about how Xandria’s future was bright, how this was their defining album —- and while artistically it might be, I pity whomever else they convince to work with them going forward.
December 21, 2017
MP, have you listened to Spirit Adrift? That’s another of @basementgalaxy’s recommendations (that’s one fellow worth following!). It’s one of those neo-Candlemass type bands, but done very well and the Curse of Conception album will be in heavy rotation during the break.
December 21, 2017
Funnily enough I was already listening to them when you posted your comment —- I was looking at Adrien’s list as well. Its pretty cool so far, and this might be the first in a long line of good albums I’ll have missed in 2017.
December 21, 2017
I’ll be interested in seeing if that Ayreon album cracks your albums list. I know you weren’t keen on it when you reviewed it, but man, it really grew on me over the year. While I still dislike a good 50% of the songs (‘ lyrics.. ugh), that still leaves a better album than most bands released this year. That said, I’d put ‘Journey To Forever’ on my list of tracks from the album that I don’t care for. Just too damn joyous for my tastes.
I’d vote for ‘Aquatic Race’ for best track from The Source. Killer riff. And I love that Hansi refuses to pronounce the word Aquatic correctly. I envision a Shatner-esque exchange in the studio with Arjen. “I don’t say aquatic. *You* say aquatic. I say akwaaatick.”
Also I thought the second half of that Pyramaze album was still pretty swell. The hooks weren’t as big, but the songs were all still solid imho. Let’s start a petition to get Terje on the next Ayreon or Star One album.
December 21, 2017
I think “Aquatic Race” was one of the songs that had a hard time keeping my interest on that album. The keyboard/guitar motif is hooky on its own, but those vocal segments are too slow and meandering for my liking. Hansi does sound great when he’s in the chorus though.
You know some cuts on the second half of the Pyramaze album are better than others (“Symphony of Tears” in particular, although the bridge in this song ends up being far more memorable than the chorus itself —- weird). I guess “Obsession” doesn’t bother me as much now as it originally did… there’s just this weird vibe on that song that reminds me too much of American nu-metal riffs to allow me to enjoy it (the soundfx on his vocals during the second verse don’t help things either). Clearly they have the ingredients in place to really hit upon something special for their third album, I’m really looking forward to it.
December 21, 2017
Unleash the Archers are certainly one of the better up and coming bands, and “Apex” is definitely one of my favorites of 2017. It’s just such a *big* album, and I love Brittany’s voice. Oh, and she did a pretty sweet cover of “Queen of the Ryche” (during ‘rock karaoke’ even)… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=280DRqoGyLw Imagine going to a karaoke bar and having to go after that. The title track is indeed epic. My favorite is the opening track, “Awakening”, though. So goddamn catchy!
I like Ayreon, though it’s not something I find myself listening to all the time. It’s one of those projects I’ve gotta be in the right mood for. I always enjoy the singers he manages to hire for these albums. I find it interesting that he got Tobias Sammet to sing on this one. Avantasia’s similar in many ways, but better (imo).
The new Eluveitie album was straight up their best since…well, the FIRST “Evocation”. That’s about all I have to say about that.
“Queen of Hearts Reborn” by Xandria is such a great song. It has one of the band’s best choruses, they utilized the choirs brilliantly and I love Dianne’s voice on it. Even her spoken parts are awesome. A lot of metal bands try spoken dialogue, it fails 90% of the time (see: early Rhapsody – yikes), though some bands manage to pull it off quite well (see: Cradle of Filth). Hell, even on TOD, a lot of the spoken dialogue’s awkward but it was pulled off in this specific song. That being said, I’ve become inoculated to bad spoken word in metal so it doesn’t normally bother me unless it goes on for way too long, and it never really does on TOD. One thing I’d like to mention is that Dianne had a noticeably bigger hand in the songwriting department on TOD, judging from the credits… I doubt whatever they do next will be as good. Finally, a band that’s matched Sirenia’s vocalist turnaround rate…
The new Satyricon album takes the elements I didn’t particularly like about the last few albums and…well, does a much better job with them. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Doesn’t beat the classics, and the kvlt crowd is still gonna bitch and moan, but I enjoyed it. My personal favorite is probably “Dissonance”…saxophones are GRIM.
“Black Flag” is an awesome song (and an awesome band too – hehe). That whole album is pure awesomeness as far as I’m concerned, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it and still am. Definitely the best of the Stu Block albums by a long shot (though I did enjoy “Dystopia” and “Plagues of Babylon” is…alright).
I liked the new Pyramaze album, maybe not as much as “Disciples of the Sun”, but it was enjoyable for me. “A World Divided” is definitely awesome. I also really loved “Nemesis” – the singing during the bridge of that one is simply awesome.
All of my comments on this blog have been long and rambling lately. Lord almighty…
December 21, 2017
One more thing – the tastemakers – Pitchfork, Spin – tend to be hipsters. I don’t think they really care about metal. I usually just ignore them.
December 21, 2017
Yeah, over the years the tastemakers have bothered me less and less (it used to really aggravate me back when I first started the blog, but then I realized that one of my roles was to be the counterpoint to their opinions/recommendations).
Some of them I do read consistently and respect their metal cred, such as the Stereogum Black Market, but even there I’m constantly amazed at the stuff I’ve simply never heard of. It seems like they go out of their way to find bands that are super underground to the exclusion of everything else (whether that’s a hipster type of thing is up for debate). I listen to the stuff they recommend and a lot of it just bores me. Occasionally something good slips through (such as that Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper record).
No one metal writer can cover everything though, so while they are busy offering opinions on the newest North American lo-fi blackgaze project I’m over here talking about Pyramaze for example. *shrug*
December 21, 2017
“Nemesis” was a damn good song off Contingent, maybe my second favorite (That chorus is just glorious)!
You know I’m still uncertain on whether Dystopia or Incorruptible is the better album. I get the feeling I lean towards Dystopia just a touch because its far more consistent throughout, whereas Incorruptible has higher highs but a pair of songs that fell a little short for me (“Relic” and “Ghost Dance” which I think was the instrumental if I’m remembering right). My reaction was certainly different to both albums —- I was more relieved with Dystopia that they had somehow pulled off a fourth singer, whereas with the new album that anxienty was gone. I had tons of fun listening to it, so that speaks volumes however (and maybe that’s the most important consideration).
Regarding Eluveitie I’m curious as to what you thought of Origins? Not a fan of the more streamlined approach?
Yeah I’ll be mildly curious as to how Xandria rebounds after this, and I’m not positive on whether Lisa or Manuella helped with the songwriting or at least contributing their own vocal melodies but in my listening experience most bands need that unless they have a truly gifted songwriter at the helm (Tuomas from Nightwish comes to mind). I just always think of how flat Kamelot sounded before Roy Khan got involved in the songwriting process (Silverthorn also suffered because Tommy came into the process late). I’ve been keeping up with Ex Libris on social media and everyone seems happy to be making a new album. I’ve never reviewed them before but seeing how well they’re treating Dianne makes me root for them.
That video of Brittany doing the Ryche cover is awesome, and she’s got such a booming, powerful, soaring voice (can’t tell how one would describe it, tenor meets baritone?) that just perfectly suits the style of music they’re making. I felt a little silly not realizing I was hearing a female vocal when I first heard the band but in retrospect I think its more of a testament to just how unique and different she is when compared to other female metal vocalists. I know its 2017 and we’re not supposed to say female fronted metal bands (and I’m trying not to), so the biggest compliment to Brittany and the band is that I’ve rarely seen them described as such. They’re turning into something special.
December 22, 2017
I’ll confess, I don’t like most blackgaze. I like Alcest, and I enjoyed the
Amesoeurs album, and that’s kind of it for me. Maybe Niege just needs to be involved in order for me to like it, lol. I think some of the hate the kvlt crowd throws at it is beyond over the top, though – blackgaze has become the new symphonic black, in that regard. Calm down dudes, stuff you don’t like will exist sometimes!
I don’t think seeking out obscure stuff is a hipster thing, unless you’re only doing it to impress people. I mean, I was definitely looking for more power metal this year, which is how I discovered this Secret Sphere album that you should still totally check out… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22OuUwfTopk
Also, no, I didn’t really care for the more streamlined Eluveitie sound. There certainly songs on the post-Evocation I albums that I enjoy (I can see why “The Call of the Mountains” is a hit – by metal standards at least), but “Spirit” is still to this day my favorite album by them (and straight up my favorite folk metal album ever). Streamlining things works well for plenty of bands – “Century Child” by Nightwish is a good example of that, love that album – but with Eluveitie, I just started getting bored. I don’t think “Origins” is a bad album by any means and it’s commendable when bands try their hand at a concept album (it can be hard to pull off!). I also liked it better than the two albums that preceded it (“Everything Remains” massively disappointed me when it came out). It just doesn’t get my blood pumping the same way “Spirit” does.
Also, yeah, I barely ever listen to the first 3 Kamelot albums (especially the first 2 – I can barely take that vocalist). I almost think of “The Fourth Legacy” as their debut, that one is goddamn perfect!
I almost think “Theater of Dimensions” is their “Fourth Legacy” in a way, in that it was a noticeably big step up. I was under the impression they were on their way up popularity wise as well – higher chart positions, a headlining US tour… They’ve put that all in jeopardy with the shitty way they treat their singers though. Also, I know Lisa wrote and cowrote a big portion of lyrics and music on her albums. Marco handled the majority of lyrics and music on “Neverworld’s End” and “Sacrificium”, though Manuela and Dianne wrote some lyrics on those too (only a couple songs on each though). On “Theater of Dimensions”, Dianne had a much bigger role in the writing process, both musically and lyrically judging from the liner notes. She cowrote music (with Marco & Joost van den Broek) for over half these songs, and she wrote lyrics for over half of them as well. Clearly it gave them a boost, considering how great the album is. I hope whatever Ex Libris does next is good. Their first couple albums aren’t bad, they’re very Dream Theater/Seventh Wonder-y.
Dunno what you’d call Brittany’s range, so I’ll just call it awesome (I think I’ve used that word enough in these posts now).