The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2021 // Part Two: The Albums

As I enter the tenth year of existence for The Metal Pigeon blog, its time to look back on a year that was undoubtedly strange, unexpected, and challenging for me as a music fan. To summarize it, I went through a period in the spring where I was feeling a little uninspired by most of the metal records coming out, and as a result started to check out different styles of music. I dove really hard into K-Pop in particular (and have kept diving), and had to figure out how to reignite a passion for metal that had all of a sudden felt a little stagnant. To the latter point, I figured out that a great tonic was to allow myself to escape the new release treadmill and simply revisit older classic metal records for fun. I also found out that when it came to new releases, my years long strategy of just slamming repeat listens of a record sort of by force was beginning to yield purely negative results. It was more prudent to wait until I was in the mood to hear something before giving it a spin, a process which definitely resulted in delayed reviews and even missing a few things, but better to slow down a little than feel burned out and stop entirely. All these months later, I feel like my connection with metal has become stronger, particularly through finding an refreshed appreciation for black metal again. As it turns out, when you spend a good amount of time ingesting super sugary music, what you really begin to crave as an antidote is it’s most extreme opposite. As a result, your musical perception is actually more open to appreciate the details and textures of extreme metal anew, rather than feeling like you’ve heard everything before. I suspect it’s a lot like if you scarf down a package of cookies in one sitting, your mind will have you yearning for I dunno, a salad the next day. The lesson learned here is that diversity is good, and balance even better — if you’re feeling a little unmoved by one style or another, check out something entirely different to change it up. This 2021 best albums list is a perfect example of how that can really have a dramatic effect.


1. Therion – Leviathan:

It’s a testament to how much I love Leviathan, that despite its late January release, it was my clear cut, without a doubt number one album all the way up until mid-summer, when the new Helloween album came out and I started to wonder if it would slip a bit. I questioned it further when in the late summer, I was getting a flurry of black metal recommendations tossed my way, and damn near all of them were direct hits, gripping my attention and dominating most of my metal listening time (which was in precious supply at certain points). But I would find myself returning to Leviathan regularly, in random moments when I didn’t even intend on playing the album all the way through, just a few songs here or there, to satisfy a craving to hear a particular melody or chorus. Spotify reminded me of this on December 1st when it presented me with my Your Top Songs 2021 playlist, and all the tracks from this album were on it (yes the whole damn album). Last.fm backs up the stats, Leviathan is my most listened to album of 2021 by well over a hundred listens compared to the album in second place, and my first rule of making these lists is to be honest with myself, even if it risks exposing me as a total fanboy. And look, I’ll embrace that title, because Therion’s first proper studio album of original material in a decade was a monumental event in the 2021 release calendar for me. This record had the added burden of being the follow up to first Therion album that I regarded as somewhat of a disappointment (2010’s Sitra Ahra). Fortunately Christofer Johnsson decided to abandon that album’s more avant garde/progressive tendencies and made a conscious decision to return to the band’s classic symphonic metal sound, even telegraphing in interviews ahead of the album release that this was an attempt at making a record that hardcore Therion fans would appreciate. And here’s the thing, he certainly succeeded in achieving that goal, but I believe that in doing so, he actually steered the band’s sound into a direction they’d not previously explored.

The beauty of Leviathan is that despite its overt look back to the band’s late 90s, post-Theli symphonic metal era, it’s a gaze that is undoubtedly refracted by the band’s gradual shifts in their sound over the course of all those albums between then and now. Where classic albums such as Vovin and Deggial were moody, dramatic, orchestral driven works, Secret Of The Runes was a jump to a heavier, almost hypnotic guitar driven approach. Their twin albums Lemuria and Sirius B were expansive, cinematic masterworks, almost panoramic in their scope and ambition. And then we saw the introduction of a new vocal driven era with Gothic Kabbalah, where for the first time the songwriting ran through some pretty incredible singers who had the ability to dominate songs through unforgettable vocal melodies. Even though releases since have been few and far between, this era has lingered; case in point, the band’s last release was the actual opera Beloved Antichrist, where guitars took a backseat to the stellar cast of classically trained singers who, you know, did their opera thing for most of those three discs. So no matter how pointedly Johnsson decided to look back at that particular late 90s era, the sound he wove together on Leviathan couldn’t help but be affected by everything in between, particularly the emergence of strong lead vocals as the band’s chief melodic force within the songwriting. This album’s most heart stirring moments are it’s most gloriously vocal driven ones — the eternity evoking choirs in “Die Wellen der Zeit”, Taida Nazraić’s achingly melancholic lament in “Ten Courts of Diyu”, Marco Hietala’s impassioned vibrato in “Tuonela”, Thomas Vikström’s mighty tenor with just a tinge of hard rock rasp on “El Primer Sol” — the list could go on. So much of this album feels fresh and new for the band, a spiritual renewal by embracing the past, a seemingly accidental forging of a new sound via the old axiom that you can never truly revisit the past again. I wonder if Christofer himself would be surprised at hearing a reaction like mine. Part of the beauty of nostalgia is melancholy, that longing for something that is elusive, but for me this album felt like a warm hug, it would always leave me strangely cheerful and hopeful in the moment, and that feeling would linger.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2021)

2.   Stormkeep – Tales Of Othertime:

I think for most of the first half of this year, I didn’t really know what I was looking for in metal as a whole. Sure there were anticipated albums from veteran bands I’d spend time pouring over, but in the grand scheme of things, I would listen to new releases of all stripes and most of it was really not leaving a lasting impression. And as I stated above in my introduction, my purely melodic cravings were being satiated in a big way by another genre of music entirely, so the fact that power metal as a whole was having an underwhelming year was compounding my feeling of aimlessness. I think it was somewhere around late summer, while swimming in a sea of K-Pop, that I realized I was feeling an occasional deep yearning to hear something that was it’s spiritual and textural opposite. This timed perfectly with my being introduced to a handful of really spectacular black metal records from friends of mine (some of which I discuss below). But the one that shook me the most was the late fall release of Tales Of Othertime by Stormkeep, a relatively new symphonic black metal outfit from Denver (a realm of majestic, snow capped mountains of its own, take that Norway!). Stormkeep won me over with their perfectly blended mix of 90s era Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon, and Emperor put through a Blashyrkh filter. Vocalist Issac Faulk (aka Grandmaster Otheyn Vermithrax Poisontongue because hell, sure why not?) delivers maybe the most entertaining and convincing black metal vocal performance of the past decade, working with a delivery that mixes razor sharp blackened shrieking with a surprising amount of enunciative clarity. His approach reminds me of vintage Shagrath ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, with a splash of Abbath’s guttural depths, a combination that makes for narrative magic — he sounds like he’s embodying the hooded character on the album cover, standing mountainside and recanting something terrible to the wind. The beauty of this album is that despite said frosty artwork and the generally bleak tone that the band achieves when going full on black metal tremolo/blastbeat mode, there’s a surprising amount of warmth being radiated from these songs. I feel it seeping through in the audible hum of the bass, the very Euro-power tinge to the keyboard arrangements (some very Blind Guardian vibes happening in places, particularly in the transitions to quieter passages), and just in the overall theatrical approach the band is favoring in these richly varied compositions. This is a perfect symphonic black metal album, to my ears anyway. It reminds me of when I first heard records in this style way back in the day, and how it made me feel at the time: Entranced, mystified, and transported somewhere else. More than any other year in the history of writing this blog, I needed to be reminded of that feeling once again.

3. Duskmourn – Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns:

On a surprise recommendation from our notoriously non-metal music fan George Tripsas, I was introduced this past summer to New Jersey duo Duskmourn’s Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns, who tap into a combination of metal styles that reach down to the very roots of what made me an extreme metal fan in the first place. There’s artfully crafted melodeath-ian lead guitars adorning expansive yet rustic, at times gritty blackened folk metal ala the early aughts, and most importantly, these songs just reverberate with me in a very physical, visceral way. So much of what started to put me off on black metal over the past few years is when bands make things too obtuse, too dense, or just too lost in their own meandering train of thought to reach out to the listener and form any kind of connection (I’m looking at you Enslaved). But listen to the first minute of “Deathless” here”, hitting us with a mix of complex black metal riffing, an incense-scented Summoning inspired epic keyboard arrangement, only to suddenly break way into a slamming heavy metal riff with thundering toms. As Halford once sang, get me locked in, get me headbanging in my desk chair. When I first listened to this album in my car, I was pounding my fist on the steering wheel to these drums. That gorgeous lead guitar solo towards the end — I mean there’s a reason why this tune ended up on my best songs list. On the title track, we’re ushered along by a stirring, majestic keyboard arrangement that acts as a melodic guide as the band rages underneath with undulating riff progressions and Walter Deyo’s charcoal blackened melodeath vocals. He and fellow guitarist Bill Sharpe keep these songs moving just enough, happy enough to plug a great riff a few times because of course you should, but introducing sharp contrasting variations in the song structure to allow tension to build and release, for melodies to blossom and breathe. Listen to how “The Sleeping Tide” changes a multitude of times throughout it’s 5 minute plus run time, exploding in a primal, anguished riff sequence towards the end. There’s a real Moonsorrow influence lurking throughout this record that harkens back to what made that band so staggering to behold in their best moments, particularly in their balancing of raw, primal, blackened aggression with beautifully complex, melancholic melodies. This is the band’s third album, they’ve clearly been honing their craft unbeknownst to me of course, but they found me when I needed them the most.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2021)

4. Swallow The Sun – Moonflowers:

Two things can both be true: That we all wish the tragedy that informed these past two StS albums (and Hallatar, and Trees Of Eternity) never occurred in the first place, and secondly, that guitarist and main songwriter Juha Raivio has managed to create astonishing art out of his very deep grief. And truth be told, I didn’t really think that he could better 2019’s When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light (one that year’s best albums), but there is a very particular and distinctive kind of magic about Moonflowers that might have it firmly in the conversation of being one of the best Swallow The Sun albums of all time. And this does feel like a musical sibling to …Shadow…, from the lengthy clean vocal melodies, to the dreamy, cosmos pondering atmospherics and wistful acoustic guitars. But despite the similarities, I feel like this album is the inverse of it’s predecessor, it’s emotional peaks landing not on it’s most violent, surging cuts, but in its more calmer, reflective songs. Take the album highlight “All Hallows Grieve”, where Oceans Of Slumber’s Cammie Gilbert joins Mikko Kotamäki on a sublimely haunting duet, it’s emotional refrain one of those moments where a beautifully written melody is elevated by an unforgettable performance. Then there’s “Keep Your Heart Safe From Me”, where despite the surprisingly Hope-esque riff to start things off, suddenly shifts into a Katatonia-like ebb and flow, finishing with as dazzling a guitar solo as I can remember on any StS album. And I really loved the weirdly Queensryche-ian vibes of “The Fight Of Your Life”, sounding like a distant cousin of “I Will Remember” or “Silent Lucidity”, Kotamäki’s vocals filled with a warmth despite all the ghostly effects put on his voice. This was a listening experience that required a bit more patience than …Shadow…, it’s pacing more subdued, it’s mood a little less anguished and violently reactive. It resulted in an album that seems out of time, particularly in the classical trio instrumental version that Raivio reworked, recorded by Trio Nox at Sipoo Church in Finland. I consider those pieces to be an extension of the album itself, instead of merely bonus tracks, because they have an entirely different emotional tenor to them despite working with mostly the same melodic structure. They made an already powerful album that much more emotionally engaging, and might be the most substantive “deluxe edition” addition in metal to date. To be sure, this was the most contemplative, inward looking album on this list in a year full of it’s exact opposite, a strange oddity that lived up to it’s namesake.

5. Fierce Deity – Power Wisdom Courage:

Every year there seems to be that band that comes out of nowhere and just levels me with a left hook through their awesomeness. Australia’s Fierce Deity was that band in 2021, it’s lone member Jonathan Barwick wowing me not only with this glorious masterpiece, but with his June release of The Trials Unmasked EP, a rustic, rootsy, Americana-informed reworking of his previous metal songs released over the past few years (you have to hear this one). I say songs because since Fierce Deity’s start in 2019, he’s been doing only digital single releases. But Power Wisdom Courage is his first all original EP release, a three track, 32 minute masterpiece that is his first complete statement, a fully realized musical journey that is audacious in its attitude, unapologetically trad metal, and tinged with a gorgeous streak of psychedelia. Of course you’ll likely recognize the album title as a reference to The Triforce from Zelda, and the band name pulled from a power-up found in Majora’s Mask, and to be sure, Barwick loves videogames and doesn’t shy away from hiding any it. He seems to occasionally go live on the Fierce Deity YouTube channel where he’s streaming himself playing and talking all things gaming (most recently seen playing Dark Souls III). But here on this record, he orchestrates a thunderous, bluesy hard rockin’ heavy metal assault with the kind of thick riffing that is at once anchoring and propulsive. How he manages to concoct an atmosphere that is rollicking as if a full band is jamming at once is beyond me, but even the drums, if indeed programmed, feel live and convincing. And this songwriting is enthralling, “Power” has a hook that won me over from the first time it graced my ears, and Barwick really understands how to write for his vocal type. He’s got a strong voice, full of character, a tone that registers more on the laid back, bellowing approach rather than the full throated going for the jugular attack of say Visigoth’s Jake Rogers. He describes his music as Stoner Power Metal on the Fierce Deity Bandcamp page, and that tag comes alive for me whenever the dreamy, stargazed atmospheric interludes pop up. They’re not distracting, they’re interwoven so deftly into the fabric of these songs that I can’t imagine them without, and their inclusion is a bold step for the band’s sound… moving beyond the more traditional metal approach heard on a cut like “Hearing Whispers” a few years ago. What excites me about Fierce Deity is that Barwick has found a truly authentic voice of his own, and it seems to have come naturally and without artifice. I love that he focuses on quality over quantity for his releases too, a concept I’ve seen work spectacularly well in K-Pop. Smaller focus, sharper execution. Make no mistake, this was the most exciting power metal release of the year.

6. Helloween – Helloween:

There was a moment there when I thought this would have sat atop this list at the end of the year. First off, it truly is one of the best albums released in 2021, and genuinely the best reunion album since Maiden shocked our collective faces with Brave New World (I know that there’s a few folks out there that would balk at this statement, sorry Dr. Metal!). That this record wasn’t an unfocused disaster given how it was constructed, with a multitude of band members taking turns handling songwriting duties over a pretty broad expanse of time, is quite frankly astonishing. Plans like this are supposed to result in plodding, mediocre messes, not an album that sounds like it was crafted with a laser focused precision by the band’s best songwriter. I was giddy on release night, staying up way too late to jam this over and over again, and it really was a euphoric experience to behold a veteran band hitting a grand slam this late in their career. That it sits here at number six on this list speaks more to the fact that I kinda burned myself out on it really quickly through the summer, and my other musical interests found myself reaching for more darker, abrasive forms of metal (see nearly everything else on this list) rather than the lighter shades found on this record. That being said, I still feel charged up when I hear “Out For The Glory”, an album opening, door-kicking in anthem that has one of the best Kai Hansen vocal drop ins ever. Michael Kiske and Andi Deris are incredible when they get to bounce off each other with vocal interplay as on “Fear Of The Fallen”, and Deris may have the best moment on the album on the ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. I need to shout out one of my personal favorites here in “Down In The Dumps”, a song that is a sweet balance of Walls Of Jericho era riffing and latter day pop candy Helloween, with a chorus that I found myself shouting along to in car rides (a pretty good sign of my approval). Of course there’s the strange and utterly surreal “Skyfall”, a song that is so packed with classic Helloween charm that you can’t help but smile at it’s audacious nature, particularly that David Bowie invoking bit in the middle. Don’t let the positioning on this list fool you, I loved the heck out of this album, but there was just so much competition for my listening time that it slipped down the ladder a bit.

7. Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:

This was one of those sneaky records that quietly burned up a ton of my listening time without me truly realizing it until I started looking at my play counts. But seeing those stats immediately brought to mind memories of me jamming this on my headphones during nightly walks, in the morning on my commute, on the drive home from work, etc. It would pop up intermittently, a tonic for a craving for all things melodeath. I actually think I listened to so few melodeath records this year because I was spending all my time bouncing between this and Duskmourn. If you’re unfamiliar, Ulthima are a Finnish-Mexican six piece who hit that sweet spot of Finnish melodeath that pulls from Children Of Bodom, Norther, and a little splash of early Kalmah in the way they balance aggressive elements with major key chord sequences. Just like Fierce Deity, there is a tangible videogame influence shining through this music, with cuts like “Black Swan” reverberating with shades of the Castlevania OST that the album title is referencing. It goes without saying that the title track here is a musical ode to that game, and really does somehow pull in major videogame music vibes through it’s melodies without resorting to cheap trickery like a random chiptune drop in. There was just something very satisfying about the listening experience on Symphony Of The Night, it brought tons of ear candy in it’s ultra melodic riff sequences, skillful lead parts, and the vocalist here, one Tuomas Antila has a real early Petri Lindroos quality to his delivery that I guess I’ve been missing from the man himself in Ensiferum lately. I wish I had something more poetic or insightful to say about this one, but sometimes an album is one of the year’s best because it just plain rules hard.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2021)

8. Groza – The Redemptive End:

I suspect this will be on many folks’ year end lists (I know they’re all out, I haven’t looked at any yet!), because it just has that unmistakable quality of being undeniable. This came to me by way of an emphatic recommendation from friend of the podcast Justin The Metal Detector, and I’ll be honest, at first I was unmoved when listening to it. But a realization I’ve come to this year is the art of timing when it comes to listening to a record, so rather than dismissing it, I waited until I felt the need to hear something like it. That eventually came crawling, a desire for something bleak, unforgiving, and brutal to work as a palette cleanser for my aural sugar overdose. And one morning with the headphones on at work, it happened, this album was the black metal celery stick I needed and I was blown away. I think what I really enjoy about this record is that its not all bottom end or alternatively, high end screeching, but a well engineered variance of both and everything in between. Groza’s lead guitars hit those tinny registers on emphatic, punctuating tail ends of riffs, but its purposeful, with an aim to lock you into a hypnotic rhythm. Meanwhile there’s a black tornado of a rhythm section pummeling away below. There is obviously a huge debt to Mgla (and Uada… Groza are big on wearing hoods too) here, and of course I’m sure comparisons are being made between the two groups in almost every article written about them. I have no opinion on the subject really, but I can say that no Mgla album had me coming back for repeat listens as much as The Redemptive End has. And maybe this is just a purely personal anecdote, but I loved this album for it’s straightforwardness and almost monotone nature, the latter a quality I’ve dinged other bands with as a negative before. I dunno how to explain myself on that one — I just needed this album this year, among other terrific black metal releases. My chief takeaway for 2021 metal wise is that I was thrilled to be thrilled about black metal again, because it had been a damn long time.

9. Seth – La Morsure Du Christ:

In my personal black metal renaissance this year, I listened to quite a few really impressive albums, some of which I won’t be talking about here at year’s end because you know, ten spots only. But during the process of elimination, I had a hard time trying to justify not including La Morsure Du Christ from France’s longtime black metal institution Seth. I’m a little disappointed in myself that I hadn’t known about these guys before, they’ve been around since 1995 and apparently had a comeback on Season Of Mist in 2013. Unlike other French black metal names like Alcest and Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, Seth prefer a more straightforward, obliterate everything in their path approach to black metal. Their sound owes a lot to Mayhem, and perhaps in contemporary terms, to Taake and Watain as well, a furious assault that frequently boils over into nigh utter chaos. What I found surprising then, given that sonic profile, was how listenable this album was. The production here is stellar. The mixing providing enough balancing between instruments to discern melodies that are pushed to the background by design, and for anchoring riffs to have enough visceral intensity right up front to prevent this from just turning into a wall of noise. There are certainly some Alcest vibes happening on the rhythmic structure in “Sacrifice de Sang” however, and in that spirit Seth display an eyebrow raising amount of variance within their songwriting throughout this album. My favorite of these random moments are the interjections of surprisingly lush, pristine beauty, often tucked away as an end of song palette cleanser, such as the serene acoustic guitar/piano lullaby at the end of “Hymne au Vampire (Acte III)”. France has been full of surprises on the metal front lately, across the spectrum of heavy music, and it was nice to be reminded of that yet again.

10. Epica – Omega:

What a massive surprise this was. Epica, a band that I had come to ignore over the years because every attempt to get into them fell flat, released an album that I genuinely thought was stellar. After Therion, it’s the next best symphonic metal album of the year, and certainly the best Epica album to my ears anyway (I have no frame of reference on whether or not most Epica fans share this opinion by the way). I think I was somewhat in denial about how much I liked this album at first, thinking to myself “Ah I just like a few songs here and there”, but when a “few songs” wind up being most of the damn album… even I had to check myself and give the band it’s due. This album edged out yet another black metal record for the final spot on this list, and I seriously considered leaving this off until I let the stats speak for me and realized this was one of my most listened to albums of the year. Being a late February release, it was also one of the few bright spots from the first half of this year, and it was something I would return to often throughout the rest of 2021. I suspect that what Mark Jansen and Simone Simons and company stumbled upon here is addition by subtraction, because correct me if I’m wrong, but this feels like a leaner, less orchestrally driven Epica. These songs are very riff forward, vocal melody driven affairs, with the symphonic elements shading in the colors around them with restrained, often scaled back arrangements. I realize that’s a silly thing to say about what is still essentially a symphonic metal album, but in my memory, Epica used to run amok with their reliance on that aspect of their sound, to the detriment of their songwriting. Maybe I’ll revisit their discography to find that I’m wrong about that and it’s only that I’ve unlocked my brain into enjoying what has always been their sound, but I suspect that I’m right — that the band has shifted their approach here in subtle but important ways. These are tremendous songs, “Seal Of Solomon” is a perfect juxtaposition of brutal and cinematic elements; “Abyss Of Time” wisely rides one of the band’s strongest melodies in my memory; and “Rivers” is incredibly beautiful, a song that stopped me in my tracks. A start to finish satisfying traditional symphonic metal listen, it’s nice to have my own perceptions of a band changed all these years into their career.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2021)

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2021 // Part One: The Songs

Here we are again, at the end of yet another long yet passingly short year, and this time celebrating not only the recent 10th anniversary of The Metal Pigeon blog, but also this being the tenth time I’ve published a best of list on this site. Its surprising to me that even after all these years, I keep refining the process by which I make my picks for both this songs list and the upcoming albums list. It used to be a very stats heavy process back in the iTunes era, where I could track play counts on my computer and my devices with minute detail. That was a reasonable way to go for awhile, but looking back on some of those past lists, I can see where it was weighing earlier in the year release dates far too heavily. Conversely, the modern day stats are found in our Last.fm trackers and of course the Spotify Wrapped feature that we were all sharing on December 1st, are tracking everything we’re listening to, thus its a lot harder to break down solely metal stuff. So I’ve found that over the past few years, I’ve been moving in a more subjective, personalized process of putting these together… asking basic questions like what were the songs that I kept remembering or craving to hear again? What song made the biggest emotional impact on me? You get the idea. I will say this year’s best songs list was a little more difficult to put together than usual. I normally aim for a nominee list of twenty-five songs and cut them down to my final ten, but honestly, this year the chosen ten were so readily apparent that I had them written on my list first and really, really struggled to find any other nominees. I guess in that sense it was relatively easy then, ten confident picks for what it’s worth.


1.   Therion – “Tuonela” (from the album Leviathan)

Perhaps the band’s most effective single release since the Gothic Kabbalah era, “Tuonela” was the cannon shot that signaled the band had returned with open arms to the familiar symphonic metal stylings that Christofer Johnsson had devoted a career to pioneering. The inclusion of ex-Nightwish bassist Marco Hietala on co-lead vocals alongside the wonderful Taida Nazraić is the song’s biggest strength, his rough hewn, richly textured voice a perfect foil for her elegant, almost effortlessly charming vocals. One of Johnsson’s most underrated strengths is his ability to know exactly what voice he needs for a particular song, I can’t think of a moment where he’s missed the mark throughout the band’s discography. The heavy strings presence here recalls memories of the classically driven Vovin era, while the dueling co-lead male/female vocals remind me strongly of the Mats Levin/Snowy Shaw/Katarina Lilja vocal melody dominant era. This song is perfectly balanced between metallic and symphonic elements, has an unforgettable violin melody anchoring that magnificent chorus, and those trademark Therion choral vocals that lift you to the heavens. A gem.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

2.   Seven Spires – “In Sickness, In Health” (from the album Gods Of Debauchery)

Brimming with the same resonant emotional power and dramatic sweep that characterized so much of 2020’s album of the year winner Emerald Seas, “In Sickness, In Health” was neck and neck with “This God Is Dead” as the most nigh perfect moment of an otherwise imperfect album. From the sparse, drifting piano notes in the intro to Adrienne Cowan’s appropriately anguished vocals in the chorus to Jack Kosto’s channeling of Use Your Illusion-era Slash esque lead guitars, this was a power ballad with a capital P. As is becoming all too clear with each release, Adrienne has developed into one of metal’s finest lyricists. Her use of strong, clear imagery highlighted with often sharp juxtapositions helps to paint pictures that immediately place you in beautifully dramatic scenes or emotional states. As glorious as her and Roy Khan’s duet was, particularly in the final few minutes of “This God Is Dead”, this song was where I felt the emotional apex of the album resided and left me, as they say, shook.

3.   Steven Wilson – “12 Things I Forgot” (from the album THE FUTURE BITES)

On an album that was as difficult for most of his fans to accept, let alone process and enjoy, “12 Things I Forgot” was the lone reminder that when it came to heartstring plucking, nostalgia soaked emotion, no one does it better than Steven Wilson. Wilson calls this the album’s Fleetwood Mac love song moment, but I took this song as somewhat of a direct lyrical response to fans who would were going to understandably balk at the strange direction Steven had taken his solo career over these past two releases — not quite a mea culpa, but more of a message of understanding. When he sings “Something I lost / And I know what it meant to you”, particularly over chiming acoustic guitars and a cascade of lush “ooohhs” and “aaaahhhs” backing vocal layers, it could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of his attempts at distancing himself from the progressive tag. The irony of course, apart from this song sounding like it could have been plucked from 2000’s Lightbulb Sun, is that he announced the reformation of modern day prog-princelings Porcupine Tree later in the year and has already released new music from the band. So maybe I was reading too much into it, but lyrically it works both ways and is undoubtedly one of his most gorgeous songs to date.

4. Brainstorm – “Glory Disappears” (from the album Wall Of Skulls)

The strongest Brainstorm song I’ve heard in ages off the strongest Brainstorm album in a decade, “Glory Disappears” is a monster of a song, built on an almost power ballad like build and release. Andy B Franck is seemingly ageless, and his vocals here are structured in an incredibly impactful way, starting with a deeper, lower register ala Geoff Tate and exploding with shocking force by the time the pre-chorus rolls around. The hook during the refrain elevates this into an all-time Brainstorm classic, Franck’s emotive tenor grabbing your wrist and refusing to let go. In a year where new power metal releases as a whole were mostly underwhelming, it was reassuring to hear one of the genre’s more underrated veterans capable of delivering such a heavy hitting jam so late in their career. Also in a year where my tastes really gravitated to two very polar musical opposites, it was nice to remember that sometimes all it took to get the Pigeon’s feathers ruffled were some meaty guitars, a thundering rhythm section, and a vocal melody that burned right into my brain.

5.   Unto Others – “Heroin” (from the album Strength)

The opening track from the newly dubbed Unto Others’ (formerly Idle Hands) second full length album, “Heroin” is a bruiser of a song, an unexpected cobra strike of sudden aggression. Singer/guitarist Gabriel Franco delivers his most desperate, intense vocal performance to date, complete with a more anguished scream to punctuate his lines than he ever barked out on their debut Mana. The MVP of this cut though is lead guitarist Sebastian Silva, whose insistent leads create an uneasy atmosphere of tension and danger. His solo midway through is a seething coil of discordant melodies that’s as energizing as it is discombobulating, and after all the prettiness he displayed all through their debut it’s kind of shocking to hear him paint something decidedly ugly and mean. For his part, Franco’s central riff here is devastating, a full on metal attack that not only set the tone for what was a far darker and more dour album than it’s predecessor, but also changed the way we’ll be perceiving this band’s capabilities from here on out. As he said in the lyrics, they gave it to us straight.

6. Therion – “Die Wellen der Zeit” (from the album Leviathan)

It’s rare that two songs from the same album end up on this list, I believe it’s only happened once before (with Orphaned Land way back in 2013), but “Die Wellen der Zeit” was too special of a song to ignore here at the end of the year. A delicate yet stately cinematic ballad built on bright, bursting orchestral grandeur and Taida Nazraić’s incredibly passionate soprano vocals, Therion paint with a kaleidoscope of colors here. This song floored me from my first pass through the album, and it continued to resonate with me throughout the year, ending up on my Spotify “Your Top Songs 2021” playlist that’s like 90% K-Pop (it’s been a weird year). Therion has had a tradition of delivering really moving ballads from “Siren Of The Woods” to “Lemuria”, but they struck upon something new and fresh here — a piece of music that was entirely ethereal and sounded like it was perpetually floating. The choral vocals provided by the Israeli choir Hellscore do a massive amount of heavy lifting, but it’s undoubtedly a star turn for Nazraić, who wasn’t even on most of our radars before her appearance on this album.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

7. Ulthima – “Black Swan” (from the album Symphony Of The Night)

The opening cut from the debut album of Ulthima, a Finnish-Mexican melodeath band with serious neoclassical tendencies ala Children Of Bodom and Norther, “Black Swan” is a microcosm of what makes Symphony Of The Night one of the year’s most compelling listens. Setting aside the seriously excellent, ultra melodic guitar leads from Ricardo Escobar, this song is equally indebted to keyboardist Niko Sutinen’s propelling melodies. There’s an unapologetically old school nature to the crunchy, dense texture of the riffing here that reminds me of classic melodeath ala the early aughts, and everything is mixed so tightly to give it that satisfyingly visceral snap you want this style to have. Vocalist Tuomas Antila’s slightly blackened vox reminding me so much of the tone used by Ville Viljanen (Mors Principium Est) is just the icing on the cake.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

8.   Epica – “Rivers” (from the album Omega)

Making their first appearance on any of my best of lists, Epica’s sublime piano-led ballad “Rivers” was the most compelling moment from one of the year’s most addictive symphonic metal albums in Omega. Of course vocalist Simone Simons’s truly haunting performance is the draw here, and she’s always been one of my favorite guest vocalists in various spots across a plethora of bands throughout the years. She has one of those voices that seems to be tailor made for emotive, often sparsely dressed ballads, and shrewd songwriters know how to utilize her talent — case in point here with Mark Jansen penning a song devoid of unnecessary nods to heaviness barring a little crunchy guitar boost up towards the end. There’s just something indefinably magical about “Rivers”, and it was one of those songs that I couldn’t ignore. I’d find myself longing to hear it again and then would let the album keep playing only to remember that everything else was plenty good to boot.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

9. Harakiri For The Sky – “Us Against December Skies” (from the album Mære)

Although I didn’t think Mære was able to get out from under the immense shadow cast by its predecessor in Arson, it was still capable of producing moments that were downright transcendent. Chief among these was the awesome, majestic “Us Against December Skies”, one of those eight minutes feels like four minutes time dilating epics. I don’t think I’ll truly ever be able to put into words why Harakiri is able to effectively channel such powerful emotion with such an unceasing wall of noise. It has a lot to do with the fantastic lead guitar melodies and simultaneously juxtaposing tempos — but what really got the lump caught in my throat here was the sequence starting at the 3:40 minute mark, where the band stop everything momentarily only to pull back the rubber band over an awesome, simple repeating riff figure, building up the tension, only to release it and let the chaos begin again.

10.   Duskmourn – “Deathless” (from the album Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns)

Propulsive, meditative, and vicious all at once, Duskmourn’s “Deathless” was the sharpest thorn from an album that was rootsy and rustic, a fusion of earthy folk-metal and epic melodic death metal. I got major Summoning vibes from the woodwind instrumentation that careens over the tremolo and blastbeat intro passage. And the band channels major Insomnium vibes with those guitar leads at the six minute mark, a wash of color that is painted across the drab, brown-grey sky that predominates this track. Just like Harakiri above, Duskmourn seem to have an innate sense of when to scale everything back and just pound a quality riff to get you audibly centered and kick up your adrenaline level. There’s intelligence in the songwriting at work here, a knowing use of space to create ebbs and flows to break up the wall of sound, and in doing so, tell a story through brutal noise that is as gorgeous as it is melancholy.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2021)

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2020 // Part Two: The Albums

The end of a long yet seemingly short road. In less than ten days we’ll be done with 2020 and hopefully onto better days and weeks to come. For as much as we try to rationalize with ourselves that there is no tangible difference in our everyday lives when that calendar changes over at midnight Dec 31st… the reality is that our perception of a clean slate, however imaginary, can change enough in our mindset to make a tangible difference. Whether it’s the introduction of New Year’s resolutions or just feeling like you can start over —- if that’s a feeling you have, then screw rationalizations and just run with it. I’m calling it right now, I think 2021 is going to be a spectacular year. It might not seem like it at first with the virus still raging and vaccine rollouts moving slowly, but I’m feeling quite optimistic about things in all ways. You should know that I’m not normally like this, but if 2020 taught me anything, its how to better appreciate the things that we took for granted that made our lives bright and worth striving for. The end of the year is also time to reflect, and that’s a tough ask this year I know —- but not on the musical front, and I’m so happy to publish this year’s best albums list below. It’s a brief list that will always serve as a reminder to me that even in the darkest of days this year, the joy of being a music (and metal!) fan never wavered. If anything, I relied on it more this year than any other time in my life, it was the ward against everything bad in the world that threatened to spill into my brain and make life dull and grey. Bring on 2021, I’ve never been more ready.

1.   Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:

I think I knew right after my first pass through this album way back in the pre-pandemic before times, that this was going to be sitting atop my year end albums list. I simply loved it too much. So much so that I actually had to force myself to stop listening to it even after my review had been published because I was worried about potentially burning myself out on it too quickly. No, that wouldn’t do. I had to slow down and give it a rest, to keep it sounding as fresh as it was, and so I purposefully shelved it for weeks. The dam cracked frequently however, as I’d find myself returning for sneak listens throughout the summer months here and there when everything else sounded like static noise —- and only the sweetly dramatic magic of Adrienne Cowan and Jack Kosto’s songwriting could deliver what I yearned to hear. Their work on Emerald Seas transcends genre boundaries, at once combining the melodicism of power metal and the epic bombast of symphonic metal through a melodeath filter. Part of the band’s staggering talent is their technical background, all the members being students at the Berklee College of Music. It’s a facet that shows up in Kosto’s neoclassical shred inclinations; in Chris Dovas’ simply dizzying mix of aggressive thrash, death, and power metal drumming styles; and bassist Peter Albert de Reyna’s nimbly jazzy rhythmic performances, often in the foreground ala Eddie Jackson/John Myung, his role in these songs transcending rhythm section duties into jazzy, off-beat expressions to run counter to Kosto. And of course Cowan is as intense and vicious a screamer/growler as she is a shining light of a pure singer.

But it’s the songs that are the true stars here, richly musical gems like “Ghost Of A Dream” and “Every Crest” channeling the sheer inventiveness and ambition of Epica era Kamelot with their playful choice of instrumentation —- Spanish sounding acoustic guitars, some accordion, and massive layers of Hans Zimmer-esque keyboard orchestration. Kosto is the guitar child of Yngwie and Thomas Youngblood, inheriting the latter’s penchant for lean, muscular riffs yet capable of exploding into wild, seemingly unrestrainable neoclassical fury in fits and bursts. Cowan’s vocal melodies here are simply joyful and glorious, loaded with melodic integrity and emotional power. On “Unmapped Darkness”, she manages to guide very literate, narrative lyrics into a sweeping, grandiose melody that is worthy of a Broadway stage. Cowan’s penchant for theatricality is best exemplified in how she ties her lyrical approach to that of the thematic vision of the album, it’s nineteenth century Romanticism a backdrop to the story of a lone sea captain on a quest for eternal life. Her skill at penning imaginative, imagery rich lyrics is seen on album highlights “Succumb” and the breathless ballad “Silvery Moon”, the character and scene coming to life via skillful diction and a strong narrative voice. She’s just an undeniably gifted lyricist and songwriter, her way with words sharing a spiritual kinship with the mighty Roy Khan’s songwriting work with Kamelot, where he elevated power metal into high art. Seven Spires have achieved just that with Emerald Seas, delivering an outright masterpiece with their sophomore album when their debut Solveig suggested they’d begin a steady climb towards something promising. They’ve smashed that timeline to bits, and perhaps captured lightning in a bottle here —- but I seriously doubt this will be a one off. They’re only just beginning.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

2.   Countless Skies – Glow:

One of those out of left field fall surprises that always seems to occur, Glow was the melodeath album that 2020 demanded. Channeling the melodic emotion of Insomnium with the clinical precision of Omnium Gatherum, Countless Skies filtered their influences through a kaleidoscope of changing, glittering colors to create a take on the style that is sunlit —- it’s melodies life-affirming and hopeful, matching the mood set by that glorious cover illustration. Part of this album’s strength is how the band utilizes space and even silence as an integral part of their compositional approach, such as on the epic “Zephyr”. Individual instruments ring on their own, notes drifting off into silent voids, all with a sense of emotive purpose rather than just a technique to build tension or anticipation. This is incredibly difficult to pull off this successfully, most bands relying on the opposite approach, to reinforce their songs with walls of sound. And to be sure, these aren’t songs on Glow in the traditional sense —- Countless Skies rarely traffic in hooks or anything resembling traditional verse/bridge/chorus song structures. Moments of beauty are bountiful but fleeting, such as the old school In Flames-ian acoustic guitar drop-off before the four minute mark in “Tempest”. Clean vocalist Phil Romeo’s impassioned exultations on that track and the awesome “Glow – Part 2: Awakening” are a revelation, equal parts Ville Friman and part Ross Jennings (although I’ve been told by a few people that he reminds them of Devin Townsend and now I can’t unhear that). This is an album that sounds effortlessly natural, again making me think just how well suited it’s cover art turned out to be because that simply is the image that this music puts in my mind. Fading afternoon sunlight against a spread of clouds in the distance, and in that visual a sense of momentary peace and resolution.

3.   Décembre Noir – The Renaissance Of Hope:

Living up to the band’s name, this was a late year discovery for me, something we played recently on the MSRcast and has proven to be one of the most compelling releases of the year. Germany’s Décembre Noir traffic in thoughtfully written, deep and dark melodic death-doom. In a year with armfuls of death-doom releases, including a new Draconian album, it’s a bit of a stunner to say that a relative unknown has released the highest calibur release among them, but I think that’s exactly what happened. And for a album that can rightfully be described as melodic, this is a shockingly brutal and violent affair, built with slabs of tortured riffs stacked roughly against one another, while vocalist Lars Dotzauer growl-barks throughout like a man possessed. These songs are written in a way that eschews traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus formatting, coming across more like passages and movements. But for their lack of typical structure, they don’t lack for memorability or even something resembling hooks, such as the repeating lead guitar motif that haunts the latter half of “Hope/Renaissance”. The band flexes a touch of prog tendencies ala Novembers Doom on “Streets Of Transience”, and even demonstrates a little straightforward heavy metal thrust during the mid-song bridge shift, with a mighty lone riff propelling things towards an awesome, headbanging sequence. The MVP here is drummer Kevin Kleinschmidt, whose unorthodox timing and unpredictable patterns are a crucial factor in the excitement level running throughout this album. I’d even go as far as to say this is the best overall drumming I’ve heard on any metal album this year, it’s that important to conveying the sheer rage and spittle-flying madness being conveyed here. Late release date be damned, this album will captivate you on first listen, and that’s why it’s so high on this list.

4.   Unleash The Archers – Abyss:

Proof that their 2017 year end list topping album Apex wasn’t just a fluke, Unleash The Archers returned this year with what is likely a far more compelling album as a whole. I say that fully aware that I’m placing Abyss three spots lower here, but that’s more due to circumstances beyond its control (namely the three albums above being released this year), and as I said in my initial review for the album, Apex had higher high points (songs like the title track and “The Matriarch”), whereas Abyss is more on an even keel throughout —- one of satisfyingly excellent songwriting tied together with the introduction of heavy layers of spacey, campy sci-fi synths. The band’s ultimately wise decision was to not attempt to replicate Apex in the slightest, to decidedly step away from its thrashier sound profile and aggressive songwriting and head boldly in a new direction. Sure there are moments of extremity found here and there, the near blastbeat percussion on “Legacy” or the furious, coulda been on Apex “Soulbound”, but they are exceptions. Continuing the storyline of the Matriarch and the Immortal’s struggle except in the expanse of outer space instead of the gritty earthen wild, allowed the band to justify adding colorful, psychedelic layers of synths to their sound, to slow down the tempos and temper their straightforward metallic attack to create some rich diversity in their songwriting output. It resulted in gems like “Through Stars”, as unorthodox a song they’ve penned to date, but one that illustrates this approach perfectly with a Beach Boys-esque harmonized chorus. There’s serious 80s Heart vibes on the sparkly power ballad “Carry The Flame”, where guitarist Andrew Kingsley delivers some awesome lead vocals alongside Brittney Hayes in an pairing that makes me think of Nightwish with Marco Hietala. The cumulative effective of all these experiments and risks taken was demonstrating that the band had grown confident enough in their songwriting abilities to trust they’d deliver memorable tunes despite changing up their color palette and brush strokes a bit. As it turns out, Unleash the Archers didn’t just get lucky on Apex, they were simply getting started on building their artistic legacy.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

5.   Magnum – The Serpent Rings:

Some may raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of Magnum here, not only because this was one of those incredibly early January releases that might be forgotten due to the time distortion of the pandemic, but also because Magnum is ostensibly a hard rock band. I’ll contest however that there’s enough metallic edge to their current sound to bend around any genre limitations, and not to mention they are a central influence on artists like Avantasia and much of the more AOR-inclined wing of European power metal. Vocalist Bob Catley is of course a seemingly perennial guest on recent Avantasia releases and tours, and in a returning of the favor, Tobias Sammet was a guest on their last record, the excellent Lost On The Road To Eternity. Magnum have steadily been releasing quality records for the past ten years, but it was on that album where they really found some fresh inspiration, and that well must’ve been deep because it’s resulted in the follow-up being their finest album in over twenty years. This is some of guitarist/songwriter Tony Clarkin’s finest work, delivering an album with no duds and a host of absolute gems, starting with the best songs listee “Where Are You Eden?” with its rich, ornate string arrangements. Bob Catley is as ageless as ever, but he’s pure magic on when given incredible melodies to work with as on the heart-aching gypsy balladry of “The Last One On Earth” (it’s lyrics as foreshadowing of the impending lockdown/isolation as anything released shortly before the pandemic), or the stately quasi-power metal of “The Archway Of Tears”. The entire first half of this album in fact is a murders row of to-be classics, and this from a band with their two principal members over 70 years old. If that’s not a motivating kick in the backside, what is?

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

6.   Falconer – From A Dying Ember:

The swan song of one of the truly great, genre expanding power metal bands borne in the original Golden Age of Power Metal™, From A Dying Ember is as fine a send off from the band to their fans and the metal world as can be imagined. It’s their most classic sounding Falconer album since Northwind, being molded after their first two classic albums, and not quite as heavy as 2008’s Among Beggars and Thieves or the all-Swedish sung Armod. Guitarist and songwriter Stefan Weinerhall set out to create the most Falconer-ish Falconer album he possibly could as a finale, taking aim to cover all the touchstones of styles and song types the band has explored over the years. That kind of bold ambition usually results in disappointment, but to his credit he nailed it —- we were gifted the best songs listee in “Desert Dreams”, an uptempo cut reminiscent of “Mindtraveller”. We also got wonderfully inspired songs loaded with the band’s penchant for infusing medieval folk melodies such as the awesome “In Regal Attire”, with one of the band’s best choruses to date. In that same vein was also the heart wrenching balladry of “Rejoice The Adorned”, a medieval tinged vocal melody led ballad cut from the same cloth as classics like “Portals Of Light” and “Long Gone By”. When I first listened to it, I idly wondered with some trepidation if this was the last time we’d be hearing Mathias Blad’s vocals on any recorded output, and that I’d even settle for recordings of his theater work in the future. He has had one of the most unique vocal approaches that any metal vocalist has ever delivered, one that is firmly committed to his theatrical stage singing style that he performs in his day job, never amplifying it to fit into a metal mold and entirely devoid of any metal vocalist influences. Weinerhall has quietly put together a resume that places him in the pantheon of all-time great songwriters in the genre, and indeed his folk music infusion was genre bending in itself. Falconer are going out as legends, and this album was for me a celebration of the nearly two decades I’ve been a fan.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

7.   Boisson Divine – La Halha:

The most euphoric, spirit lifting surprise of the year, Boisson Divine’s La Halha appeared on my radar via the good people in the r/PowerMetal community who are always sourcing unorthodox stuff that you wouldn’t expect a bunch of people who argue over what Blind Guardian album is the best to pull out of their collective back pocket (btw it’s Nightfall guys). Boisson Divine can be classified as folk metal, sourcing that aspect of their sound from their French Gascony roots which serves to set them apart from the subgenre’s usual geographical musical influences. And were it not for translations, I would not understand what these songs are speaking about (they sing in French and a regional language called Occitan), but the band makes it clear on their Bandcamp description blurb what they’re often singing about: legends, songs to the land, rural solidarity, feasts, traditional songs… rugby even. They marry all this with an ample amount of trad/power melodicism and musicianship, with a sprinkle of punk rock enthusiasm particularly in their often group sung lead vocals. And they write energetic songs that are loaded with hooks that transcended language via insanely catchy vocal melodies, such as on the album highlights “La Sicolana”, “Rei de Suèda”, and best songs listee “Libertat”. I mentioned in my original review for this months back that these songs were without anger —- and that’s something that drew me to this album time and again throughout the year. When it seemed like every minute was consumed with toxic moods and emotions, La Halha was an hour long escape where even the language barrier didn’t matter.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

8.   Green Carnation – Leaves Of Yesteryear:

Norway’s Green Carnation returned after a fourteen year hiatus with one of the most cerebral yet headbanging albums of the year in Leaves of Yesteryear. And in truth, this was really my first experience with the band’s music, this album coming my way via Spotify’s playlists back in May. The band plays a vein of progressive metal that is similar in influences to what Opeth and Enslaved are doing now, except while those two bands channel Camel and Pink Floyd as influences respectively, Green Carnation seem to get their inspiration from heavier, more rockin’ sources like Deep Purple and Uli Jon Roth era Scorpions. That’s already a far more appealing starting point for me, and that they write incredible songs is of course what makes this album worth talking about at the end of the year. It’s five song tracklist may seem appallingly short, but these are mostly lengthier songs that are gradually unfolding musical thrill rides, such as the fifteen minute “My Dark Reflections Of Life And Death”, a song that is built on a series of alternately headbanging riffs and meticulous spans of quiet, atmospheric tension building. Vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (also of Tristania fame) is a key draw of this album, his smooth yet hazy singing voice capable of bringing an element of raw emotion in ache and melancholy to these songs. He shines on the album closing Sabbath cover of “Solitude” (yes there’s only four original songs on here but trust me, it’s not an EP), his approach landing in that misty, smokey territory that reminds me slightly of Mikael Akerfeldt during the Steven Wilson producer years. In my original review for this album, I commended it’s overall listenability, and that opinion still stands —- this is one of those metal records that transcends subgenre barriers and should be essential listening for anyone who likes a heavy riff or two.

9.   Well Of Night – The Lower Planes Of Self-Abstraction:

It was my goal way back at the beginning of the year to make an effort to listen to more black metal once again after really stepping away from the subgenre for the past couple years. I pretty much whiffed on that plan once the world went south and I found myself stuck inside all day building the Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, but what little black metal I did search out I made count. Case in point is debut album by Dayton, Ohio’s Well Of Night (such an unusual geographic location for a black metal band is by now not all that remarkable, given black metal’s permeating reach these days), who eschew the genre’s move towards more murkier, “post” drenched sound worlds in favor of hearkening to more traditional roots. Here they channeled second wave Norwegian black metal ala Emperor’s blistering wrath with Dimmu’s skillfully written song arrangements ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, resulting in a sound that was richly melodic without the need for layers of orchestra and cinematic symphonics. On tracks like “Apex and Eschaton” and “Black Alder Sacristy”, they utilize major rhythmic shifts and undulating currents of audible bass (in black metal?! Get out of here!) to create texture and space within the fabric of layers of ringing tremolo riffs. There’s an intensity and at times, violence to this album that is staggering, and it’s made possible as a result of the band’s decision to aim for the most crisp, clear, instrument separating mix that I’ve heard on a black metal album in years. It resulted in one of those undeniably compelling listens, one that caught me off guard and had me transfixed.

10.   Eshtadur – From The Abyss:

Colombia’s Eshtadur released the most creative, expressively diverse extreme metal album of the year in From The Abyss, a merger of melodic death metal with symphonic black metal swirls and even wild hard rock. This blurring of genre lines within the context of an album and even in individual songs themselves is what makes Eshtadur one of the most intriguing and exciting extreme metal bands to emerge in the last decade, something they started to fully develop on the cheekily titled Stay Away From Evil And Get Close To Me. Vocalist/guitarist Jorg August is the band’s principle member, songwriter and all around visionary, and his approach is to embrace any and all aspects of his influences and distill them into his horror tinged elixir. As a vocalist he is versatile, veering from delivering deeply guttural vocals over some very Septic Flesh-reminiscent death metal to a metalcore influenced scream over a piercing tremolo riff sequence. Despite all the extremity, these are highly discernable songs, forgoing a wall of sound approach in favor of clear instrument separation, a balanced mix, and crisply recorded guitars so that the melodies here are bright and memorable. They’re also catchy as hell, and it’s not even a surprise when a rockin’ cover of Firehouse’s “All She Wrote” featuring Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati on guest vocals appears mid-album. It’s one of the best cross genre covers you’ll ever hear, and despite its bewildering, surreal placement in the middle of such a brutal, ferocious album —- it actually makes sense and provides context to the hookiness of the rest of the record. This is an album that flew under the radar this year but deserves to be heard, precisely because this band is unafraid of it’s unconventional influences, even something as polarizing as pop metal.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2020 // Part One: The Songs

I’ve never been as relieved and ready to pen a year end list as I am now, for this most grueling and daunting of years. Welcome to part one of the annual best of feature, once again focusing on the top ten songs of the year with the albums list coming soon in part two. For this songs list, I don’t think it’s that surprising to state that this year more than any other, mood had a lot to do with what ended up here. You’ll notice a distinct lack of anything particularly extreme, and that’s not by coincidence. It’s only recently, as in the past few months, that I’ve started to listen to a lot of extreme metal again, because during those early pandemic months, I just needed it’s diametric opposite. So it’s perhaps accurate in saying that this list might have been ever so slightly different had 2020 been a normal year, although I suppose that could be said for so many things about life in general. Reminiscing aside, like anyone else I’m not sorry to see the backside of this year as we collectively slam the door behind it, but it’s worth remembering that it did yield some truly magical music amid the chaos.

1.   Seven Spires – “Succumb” (from the album Emerald Seas)

Such is the magnificence of Seven Spires’ Emerald Seas that no less than four songs from it could have occupied this top slot for 2020, but the most charmingly gorgeous and daringly adventurous of them all was the monumental “Succumb”. Built on regal guitar melodies and a restrained yet punchy orchestral arrangement, “Succumb” is largely a vehicle for the devastatingly masterful songwriting and performance of vocalist Adrienne Cowan. She’s versatile and adept at seemingly everything; capable of fiercely abrasive harsh vox, gritty rock n’ roll belting, and alternately gorgeous clean singing reminiscent of Sara Squadrani’s heartwarming, crystalline tones. Here she manages to merge the latter two in a swaggering, heroic vocal performance so convincing and passionate you’d swear she’s singing it while swinging from the rigging of a ship. And her lyrics are pure poetry, full of inventive phrasing and evocative imagery, the chorus boasting the most striking moment —- “…And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone…”. Her talent as a lyricist shows her direct influence from the mighty Roy Khan, and like the master himself, she knows how to marry those words to unforgettable melodies so as to make their story come to life every time we listen.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

2.   Fellowship – “Glint” (from the album Fellowship)

The lead off track from the debut EP of UK power metal upstarts Fellowship, “Glint” is the reason why you’ll find so many of the peeps at r/PowerMetal convinced these guys are going to be the subgenre’s saving grace when their highly anticipated new album comes out (hopefully in 2021). While I personally think the state of power metal is more than fine, thriving actually, “Glint” is the first song I’ve seen that’s managed to collectively excite dewy eyed optimists like myself and bitter, cynical curmudgeons alike. It’s brilliance is self-evident, the band’s core identity and style presented in it’s light-footed orchestral sweep and sway, it’s classic-era Sonata Arctica guitarwork and vocal-centric melodicism. The whole band is deserving of praise for their work here, but I want to single out vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry in particular for his unconventional and inspired approach towards his lyrics, which are definitely a cut above the standard power metal fare. The self-empowerment theme running through this song, exemplified in that unforgettable refrain (“I’ve always been worthy…”) has certainly been expressed in the genre before, but rarely so effectively and directly. And there’s something so right and timely about that directness —- we all needed to hear this song this year.

3.   Mors Principium Est – “Lost In A Starless Aeon” (from the album Seven)

Striking like a guided missile, this absolute masterpiece from the new two man lineup Mors Principium Est album shot it’s way onto this list upon first listen. Why? Because of those incredibly melodic, almost neo-classical leads, rippling along a classic melodeath riff storming right out of the gate, and the catchiest little double figure-tail pattern I’ve heard in ages in that chorus. The solo midway through is built on beautiful ascending and descending patterns, a flurry of dizzying wizardry. Guitarist Andy Gillion delivered his finest songwriting moment for the band here, not only staying true to the band’s signature sound but refining it into being one of the greatest slices of melodeath to ever grace my ears. This is not only an instant classic banger, it’s emblematic of why when melodeath is done right, and I mean absolutely right, it’s the most viscerally exciting and satisfying subgenre of metal.

4.   Unleash The Archers – “Abyss” (from the album Abyss)

The undeniable centerpiece of a spectacular album, the title track for Abyss proved that “Apex” wasn’t a fluke, that the band had developed the compositional skills to handle long pieces with skill and dexterity. This is a seven minute song that always feels like a three to four minute listen, usually with me getting irritated that it’s already over and I have to go back and click it again (the brazen inconvenience of it all). The marriage of synths with the band’s rocketing power metal was central in why the new album worked so well, and that can be heard as a microcosm here. And really, Brittney’s vocals subsume everything to her will anyway, her powerful performance here artistically depicted by the all consuming black hole in the video above.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

5.   Judicator – “Gloria” (from the album Let There Be Nothing)

Sometimes it doesn’t have to be that complicated to get on the best songs list. A few seriously crunchy, headbanging riffs, a fantastic vocal melody and an unforgettable call and response chorus —- “Gloria” had it all. The added dimension of John Yelland’s incredibly Hansi-ian vocal tone is one of the major selling points of Judicator’s sound for sure, but this was one of those songs where Judicator married their influences to something more inborn, a further refining of their own sound. The guest vocals by Mercedes Victoria were an inspired touch, utilizing female vocals in the most aggressive passages rather than in a typical beauty and the beast setup. Guitarist Tony Cordisco left the band after this album’s release, but hopefully the new lineup has a few more “Gloria’s” left in the bag.

6.   Falconer – “Desert Dreams” (from the album From A Dying Ember)

Falconer guitarist Stefan Weinerhall penned the dreamily sweet melancholy ballad “Rejoice the Adorned” to serve as the emotional gut punch of their swan song album From A Dying Ember, and it certainly lived up to expectations. But for me, the last Falconer album’s most poignant tune was actually the second track on the record, the storming, attacking “Desert Dreams”. Not only was it cut from the same cloth as the band’s first two classic albums, all drama molded into furiously uptempo hard rock riffing with medieval-tinged melodic twists, but Mathias Blad does that effortless thing where his vocals stay at their own chosen tempo, regardless of the chaos erupting around him. It’s such an iconic sounding slice of classic Falconer —- and I’ll straight up admit that when Blad comes in with his layered harmony vocals around the 3:35 mark, I get all the feels. Aching bittersweet feels.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

7.   Sorceror – “Lamenting Of The Innocent” (from the album Lamenting Of The Innocent)

It’s rare that the longest track on an album winds up being it’s most spectacular song, but the title track to Sorcerer’s newest album fits that bill. A slowly, softly building atmospheric epic, “Lamenting Of The Innocent” is a journey unto itself, with distinct sections with separate melodic motifs that are equally compelling. It’s a spiritual cousin to the glorious “Unbearable Sorrow” off 2017’s The Crowning Of The Fire King, which also made that year’s best songs list (also the longest song on that album, must be #JustSorcererThings). The punishing, brutal vocal led bridges are contrasted with Kristian Niemann’s ever breathtaking swirling, hypnotic lead guitar melodies draping the chorus —- his clear tone and emotional phrasing makes you feel like you’re floating into the night air.

8.   Magnum – “Where Are You Eden?” (from the album The Serpent Rings)

This majestic, surging gem from Magnum’s early January album The Serpent Rings is emblematic of the renewed spirit and vigor the band has found since 2018’s Lost On The Road To Eternity. Built on Rick Benton’s tension raising keyboard orchestration and some fairly aggro, border-line metallic riffing from Tony Clarkin, this song resembles something closer to Avantasia than the British rock that Magnum is typically associated with. And of course Bob Catley’s participation with that band recently adds fuel to that fire, but there’s truly something positively Tobias Sammet-ian about the heightened arc that Catley rides with his performance on this explosive chorus.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

9.   Dynazty – “Hologram” (from the album The Dark Delight)

Sometimes all it takes is to be at the right place at the right time… and to be a glorious power ballad of course. I can’t tell you how much I listened to this song around the early weeks of the pandemic, this album having come out in early April when everything was falling apart. I reviewed The Dark Delight among other albums as a means to distraction, but “Hologram”, with its comforting piano intro, plush orchestral arrangement, and gloriously skyrocketing chorus seemed to stick with me long after. It was one of those songs I kept on heavy rotation particularly around the April-June months for it’s uplifting, mood enlivening qualities. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that songs with that kind of power are more valuable than gold.

10.   Boisson Divine – “Libertat” (from the album La Halha)

The euphoric, life-affirming single we needed in late-May is the capstone of one of the year’s most surprising, out of left-field albums. Boisson Divine’s blend of Celtic-punk spirit married to power metal guitars and their own Gascony folk-music DNA is honed to a razor’s edge here with an unforgettable hook. If the music video doesn’t lay it out pretty clearly, this is a song celebrating life in a fundamentally joyful spirit. And this song’s timing, post/during lockdowns was much needed, its chorus translated as “But one day you will escape / And you will find your freedom”. The band helpfully added English subtitles for this song’s music video, but I suspect most of us understood what they were singing about anyway.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2019 // Part Two: The Albums

There have been previous years here at The Metal Pigeon where the year end list was an agonizing, much deliberated upon process, but none like this year. Simply put, the sheer quality of some of these 2019 releases made trying to decide which of them I loved the most extremely difficult. This best albums list was slowly under construction as the year went along, with new contenders for the top spot seemingly popping up every month or so. I guess what really surprised me about the final result was in seeing just who wasn’t there, especially in a year where veteran bands were putting out notable new records. If there’s a theme to 2019, it’s the year of the upstart, the newcomers and relatively unknown bands that wound up making the biggest impact on me. Not only is that something to cherish because of what it says about the health of the metal scene overall, but for me personally it makes writing The Metal Pigeon and co-hosting the MSRcast podcast more gratifying, and just makes being a metal fan more fun too. Thanks to everyone for sticking around to read my words for another year!

1.   Dialith – Extinction Six:

The subgenre with the most difficult learning curve and the easiest potential for a band to derail entirely is that of symphonic metal —- in which even its pioneering architects in Therion and Nightwish occasionally misstep or just flat out faceplant themselves in the dirt. Arguably, artistically successful symphonic metal requires gifted musicians, talented and often trained vocalists, and a songwriter that can weave together these disparate elements into something grand, epic, and powerful. It’s such a problematic subgenre that over the years it had gotten stale primarily because most of its artists followed a proven template time and time again. As a result listeners began to feel as though most bands were indistinguishable from one another, that they had heard the same record over and over, and the idea of classic symphonic metal (that is, the stuff not blended with extreme elements ala Fleshgod Apocalypse) began to be the object of scorn and ridicule. Its somewhat ironic then that the band that might be the turnaround for the entire subgenre is an unsigned band on their self-released debut album, who hail not from Europe or Scandinavia, but from Danbury, Connecticut. With Extinction Six, Dialith reintroduced actual metal to the idea of symphonic metal, creating a sound that is at once as shimmeringly ethereal as their obvious influences, but also grounded and gritty, at times full of seething aggression.

They accomplish this by incorporating a love of aggressive melodic death metal throughout their songwriting, thrashy and dense in the guitars, with a punishing rhythm section holding things together. Eschewing the standard rhythmic chug heard in most symphonic metal bands, guitarist Alasdair Mackie unleashes a barrage of crunchy, tightly packed, galloping melodic riffs that constantly shapeshift, slow down, speed up, and veer hard into wild power metallish passages. Directly propelling this attack is drummer extraordinaire and dark horse mvp candidate of the album Cullen Mitchell, whose incredibly creative patterns and fills bring a bracing urgency to these songs. Vocalist Krista Sion turns in the most compelling vocal performance in a symphonic metal record in the past decade, at once haunting and yet earthy, capable of sounding serene, or detached, and even angry from moment to moment. I simply could not stop listening to this record once I was introduced to it, and despite its August release date, it is my most played album of the year. I would listen to it at home, when driving to work, and when wearing headphones at the grocery store, blankly staring at bags of frozen veggies while I wondered how it took until 2019 for anyone to realize that the secret to revitalizing symphonic metal is to worry less about the symphonic bit, and just get more metal with it. That Dialith stumbled upon this truth on their first full length defies logic —- but that its an American band that’s bringing new life to a European born subgenre long declared dead is something I’m thrilled about. If you haven’t figured out by now that the most exciting new metal bands are spilling out of the USA and Canada this last half decade, consider Dialith’s Extinction Six another gloriously loud wake up call.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2019)

2.   Idle Hands – Mana:

This is likely going to be one of those rare times when something on my year end list matches a lot of other publications, probably some high profile ones too. And when it comes to Idle Hand’s gnawingly irresistible debut Mana, that’s the way it should be, because this record is undeniable. You might recall that I was a bit conflicted on this album way back in the summer, even mentioning on an episode of the MSRcast that I found vocalist Gabriel Franco’s grunts and wolfman exultations a little trying. But his songwriting was just so compelling, and cuts like “Give Me To The Night”, “Jackie”, and the glorious “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” were too addictive to cast aside over a minor gripe. Funnily enough however, I began to learn to love those strange vocal outbursts, now to a point where I can’t imagine the songs without them and you damn well better believe that when I catch the band live in March I’ll be matching Franco grunt for grunt. Idle Hands’ sound is a blend, a Tribulation-esque metallic crunch to the riffs, with the hard rock strut and mystical swagger of The Cult, and the detached gothic sensibility to Franco’s stoic vocal tone that brings to mind Sisters Of Mercy or The Mission. But Mana is more than just the sum of its influences, as Franco’s songwriting style is imbued with a distinctive character, and guitarist Sebastian Silva turns in one of the finest performances of anyone on any album all year. Oh and the other thing that honestly counts for a lot these days —- that when I needed to hear something fun, to perk me up, to lift my mood, Idle Hands’ Mana wasn’t far from my mind or my speakers.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2019)

3.   Aephanemer – Prokopton:

Representing a new spoke on the pinwheel of diversity that is French metal, Aephanemer broke this year in a big way with their sophomore album Prokopton. Unlike the black metal infused artistry of Blut Aus Nord and Alcest, or the raw, vicious speed/power blend of last year’s best albums list maker Elvenstorm, this four piece from Toulouse weave together Gothenburg-ian melodic death metal with classical inspired melodies (and apparently traditional Slavic music too, I’ll take their word for it). Lead guitarist and principal songwriter Martin Hamiche is a veritable fountain of non-stop melodies, most of which sound like they should be played on a violin or cello. Alongside rhythm guitarist/vocalist Marion Bascoul, they weave together the most frenetic yet beautiful guitar wizardry set to urgent, insistent tempos. And they simply don’t stop —- the melodies weave one idea into another without skipping a beat, and segues into ultra-aggressive headbanging riffs come without warning and with maximum impact. Bascoul’s rhythm guitars are fierce and just crunchy enough to stand apart from Hamiche’s decadent, flourish laden performances. But its her vocals that are perhaps her most valuable asset, brutal and snarling, shaded with a little black metal grimness, and crisply enunciated. The relentless pace of this album is hyper-aggressive, a breathless flurry of consistently up-up-up-tempo dizziness (ever have those dreams where you’re driving uncontrollably fast and fly off a highway overpass, tracks like “Bloodline” should be their soundtrack). I was stunned outright when I first heard Prokopton all those months ago, and still feel the same way listening to it now —- this was not only a bold re-imagining of what melodic death metal could be, but perhaps the most high-energy album to ever grace a Metal Pigeon year end list.

4.   Thormesis – The Sixth:

Though they’ve been around for a decade plus, Germany’s Thormesis kinda languished in the dark for their first five albums (that they were sung in their native language probably didn’t help much). Cue The Sixth, where the band scaled back their pagan folk roots, incorporated more post-metal influences (particularly with moodier passages built on vividly ambient clean guitar figures), but most importantly, they brought some old school rock/metal sensibility to the affair. Tremolo guitars rarely dominate for long on these songs, often veering into (no other way to describe it other than…) rockin’ passages where you’re locked in with meaty, hooky riff progressions. The lead guitar flying over the top throughout is loose and wild with a hard rock sensibility, often going for maximum dramatic impact with inspired melodic motifs. And melody is where Thormesis reign supreme, because the fundamental appeal of this album is their ability to tightly control and deploy blasts of blistering, furious black metal within highly melodic, very accessible songwriting structures. The result was an album of songs that didn’t feel oppressive, didn’t require a certain kind of mood or external ambiance in order to really “get into it”. On the contrary, the band would often paint complex musical moments where you’d detect shades of melancholy and optimism simultaneously, such as in the ending sequence of “Their Morbid Drunken Ways”. Which meant that I listened to this album when I was in need of something angry, but also played it when I was perfectly calm and it was bright and sunny out. For someone like me who is finicky about stuff like being in the right mood to fully appreciate this or that album —- The Sixth was an anomaly, a kind of meditative space where I could be encompassed by its strange mix of disparate musical elements and figure myself out.

5.   Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light:

This was not an easy album to listen to, even though I feel its Swallow The Sun’s strongest work to date in a career full of excellent moments. Enough has been written and spoken both on this blog and random episodes of MSRcast about the backstory behind this album, perhaps too much, but its not like you can ignore it particularly when these songs are the channeling of grief by the band’s chief songwriter. Its a sad, somber record that can weigh on you if you’re susceptible enough, and there were times when I simply didn’t want to listen to something this damned heavy… as in burden of grief heavy. In April I saw the band perform live on their tour with Children of Bodom, their first American trek with Juha Raivio in tow in years. He’d understandably skipped the past few tours, but there he was directly in front of me, playing some of these songs that he’d written to process whatever turmoil it was he was going through, and it was surreal to watch someone exorcising that in front of you. Getting to see that in person made me realize just how much of a triumph When A Shadow… actually is, because rather than rely on the old school Swallow The Sun formula, Raivio borrowed from the gothic splendor of the Trees of Eternity record to rejuvenate the band’s sound. This yielded aching melancholy through bittersweet melodies, a lushness through layered vocals from excellent performances by Mikko Kotamäki and keyboardist Jaani Peuhu, and allowed Raivio to incorporate empty space as a texture more than ever before. The overall effect was meditative, with songs that moved at a stately, often wandering pace, all working to support the evocative lyrical imagery of fire and shadow, of solitary temples, and expansive lakes under starlit skies. An uncomfortable listen at times, but one of the most compelling that I’ve ever experienced as a metal fan, full stop.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2019)

6. Insomnium – Heart Like A Grave:

In any other year, Insomnium’s emotionally wrought Heart Like A Grave could have been at the top of this list, and it’s a testament to the aforementioned abundance of awesome releases that there are five others ahead of it here. Some may feel that the restrained, more subdued nature of some of these songs arriving in the wake of the brutal, blistering, black metal injected Winter’s Gate was too much of a deviation for their liking, but that’s precisely why I feel so strongly about it as a fan. The band ran out of some of their creative magic on Shadows Of A Dying Sun in 2014, and the step towards a more extreme direction on Winter’s Gate helped them grab some distance from their “classic” sound. Returning to it now, the band displayed some renewed vigor, helped along by fresh songwriting inspiration by dipping deeper than ever before into the well of Finnish melodic melancholy by the way of Sentenced and Amorphis. The result was an album expressly written with an ear towards guitar and vocal melodies, with purely rhythmic riffs being secondary in the equation, at times even kept to a supporting role as on “Pale Morning Star”. On songs like “Valediction” and “Heart Like A Grave”, the band broaden the role of clean vocal melodies like never before, with Ville Friman and newcomer guitarist Jani Liimatainen carrying entire passages with their voices. Lyrically, a bleak, despairing streak coursed through these songs that was particularly downcast even for Insomnium. There were streaks of optimism firing through albums like One For Sorrow and Shadows, but not here, with themes of hopelessness and inner despair set against the backdrop of a fraying outside world. That they set these dark themes against some of the most achingly poignant melodies in a way that makes them heartbreakingly bittersweet is central to Insomnium’s brilliance and the emotional reach of Finnish melo-death.

7. Månegarm – Fornaldarsagor:

Earlier in the year, Swedish folk veterans Månegarm released their strongest record in a decade with Fornaldarsagor, one that is also arguably the most satisfyingly fun of their entire two decades long catalog. Still incorporating the broiling black metal foundation that’s been the broth to their particular recipe of folk metal phở, the Swedes stumbled upon a batch of incredibly hooky material for this record, helped along by leaning hard on the warm folky elements that we’ve gotten on albums past in fits and starts. Here they blanket the proceedings almost entirely, and as a result the album is a lot more mid-tempoed than you’d expect from a band built on black metal foundations. That’s not a bad thing though, because these are melodies that are incredibly endearing, not quite sugary, but possessed with enough sweetness to be a bright, uplifting counterpoint to all the aggression. Adrenaline ratcheting cuts like “Sveablotet” and “Hervors arv” were set to racing tempos, ringing tremolo guitars as well as a dense, melo-death riff battery that anchored everything with a powerful rhythm presence. But they were both spliced open with explosions of folk melody, yielding to its tempo needs and abrupt transitions. On the album highlight “Ett sista farval”, they were aided by gorgeous lead vocals from Ellinor Videfors in a duet with longtime Manegarm vocalist Erik Grawsiö —- their combined clean vocal combo resulting in one of the most poignant folk metal tracks that I can remember in years. Though the folk metal revitalization is taking a slower, more steady path than power metal’s recent resurgence, it’s comforting to see old hands like Vintersorg, and now Manegarm come up big as of late with stellar new albums. The genre was in need of a refocusing on its roots before it was handed off to younger, newer bands —- thankfully, Manegarm are doing their part.

8. Sabaton – The Great War (The History Edition):

Sabaton have had records on my year end lists before, so this shouldn’t be a surprise —- however they’ve not been on all of them. Only Carolus Rex and Heroes have made it on, with The Last Stand never even making my final nominees list. I say that to emphasize that even though I do love this band, I’m not blind to their faults and tendencies, and that being said, there’s plenty of reasons why Sabaton made the cut this time as well with an album that is arguably their strongest since the aforementioned Carolus Rex. You might have noticed above that I specified the History Edition of The Great War, and while I don’t believe that merely the presence of the historical narrations via a talented British (?) voice actor made all the difference between this album appearing on this list or not, I do believe that it is the definitive version of the album that all Sabaton fans owe it to themselves to check out. But indeed, The Great War is here because of its songs, with cuts like “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”, “The Red Baron” and “Great War” among the band’s very best compositions. The band took their time with this record, with the gap between this and 2016’s problematic The Last Stand being the longest in between releases they’d ever taken. That extra year allowed for time to focus on working on the ambitious World War I theme running throughout this album. And there’s something to be said about Sab using a darker, more somber theme for a change to their songwriting advantage. It forced them to write material that wasn’t all major chords and skyrocketing choruses, but to get heavy, to lean hard on the riffing and pyrotechnics combo of Chris Rorland and Tommy Johansson to get down in the mud and muck. Joakim Broden is of course ageless and still one of the most compelling songwriters in metal, turning in lyrics and performances here that bring these stories to life and make audiences care about them. This was the rebound they needed after The Last Stand saw them dangerously treading water, and I can’t begin to fathom how they’re gonna try to top it.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2019)

9. Frozen Crown – Crowned In Frost:

Hot on the heels of their impressive debut album last year(!), Italy’s newest power metal phenoms Frozen Crown decided to waste no time and in lieu of extensive touring, worked on crafting a follow-up that would capitalize on the momentum they had built up. Its a smart strategy, and when you have a songwriter with the hook crafting talent of Federico Mondelli, you’re better off unleashing new songs to build up a catalog and get word of mouth by winding up on lists like this one rather than coughing up thousands in rental and fuel costs on the road. Undoubtedly, Frozen Crown will have some pretty sweet tour offers down the road, but for now its enough that they’re focused on their art, because Crowned In Frost makes the case for being the most fun power metal album of the year. Mondelli infuses crackling energy into songs like “Neverending”, “In The Dark”, and “Winterfall” by augmenting soaring power metal melodies with aggressive, melodeath riffing. He’s backed up in this by the dizzying battery of drummer Alberto Mezzanotte, who delivers wildly engaging, creative patterns, never resorting to power metal drumming 101 (check out his absolutely bananas work on “Winterfall” in particular). But it’d all be for naught if they didn’t have a vocalist who didn’t live up to all that excellent musicianship, and Giada Etro in a mere two year span has made a case to be considered one of the best in the genre. Simply put, she’s capable of soaring heights, has a rich, powerful timbre to her voice, and her choices in regards to phrasing, diction, and emphasis are downright impeccable. Mondelli’s melo-death inspired screaming vocals are a welcome addition to the Frozen Crown mix too, giving the band the ability to pull sudden turns off the trad/power route into extreme territory to ratchet up the energy or darken the mood. But what I love the most about this record is that it demonstrates that Mondelli and company seem to understand what fundamentally makes excellent power metal so vital —- that it delivers a sense of grand adventure, of spirit raising triumph, and defiance against the odds. Along with a score of other new bands arriving on the scene, Frozen Crown make me feel really confident about the health and future of the genre going forward.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2019)

10. Helevorn – Aamamata:

Spain’s Helevorn may not have the big name pedigree of other death-doom metallers like Swallow The Sun, Paradise Lost, or My Dying Bride, but they deserve to be highlighted alongside those titans based on the quality of an album like Aamamata. And for sure those aforementioned bands’ collective influence can be heard through the bleak brutality present here, but what sets Helevorn apart is their unabashed embrace of gothic metal palettes and textures, particularly in the vocal department. On “A Sail To Sanity”, vocalist Josep Brunet balances his throat ripping gutturality with emotive, deep, and dare I say smooth clean vocals that sometimes affect a slight goth rock stoicism. I know that Helevorn’s geographic proximity to Spain might have influenced my thinking that there’s a heavy Moonspell influence at work here, but swear its audibly palpable on the trance inducing guitar motif being used in that song, and it pops up in other places throughout the album. Said influence is clearly running through an adventurous, genre defying cut like “Nostrum Mare”, a dreamy but desolate ballad with cinematic symphonic keyboards, a guest performance by an unknown vocalist singing in Catalan, and a gorgeous, haunting outro guitar solo. That blend of diverse elements sounds like its a bit much but Helevorn have the compositional chops to arrange everything into powerful, drama building passages. Draconian’s own Heike Langhans drops in for a suitably doom meets goth metal guest vocal moment on “The Path To Puya”, adding a bit of stargazing cosmic grandeur to a bleak, and morose sounding track about the trek to the afterlife. This album sailed under the radar for loads of people, and its early January release date will probably keep it off most folks radars when considering the best records of the year. That’s a shame because excellent work should be given its due, regardless of how relatively low a band’s profile is, and hopefully Helevorn’s placement here can be the start of that.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2019 // Part One: The Songs

It’s been an incredible year for new music, one of the best that I can remember, and I’m wrapping it up with part one of the double Best of 2019 feature. I’ve done a best songs list since 2012, and I think in the end of the year flurry around albums, its excellent songs that often tend to get lost in the shuffle. As expected, there will be some crossover here with the upcoming albums list, but I love giving isolated gems from problematic albums some attention on here. For the metrics, I did consider my iTunes play counts (yes I’m still using an iPod Nano), but as Spotify has increasingly taken over as a source for music, those stats are becoming less relevant. So I had to really check myself to be as honest as possible, even if it makes a few readers shake their heads in bewilderment as I’m sure some of the stuff below will. Be sure to check out our upcoming MSRcast episodes for discussion on late 2019 releases, as well as our gigantic year end blowout episodes where we’ll likely be talking about a ton of stuff not covered here.

1.   Avantasia – “Ghost In The Moon” (from the album Moonglow)

The opening track from Avantasia’s flawed but fun Moonglow, “Ghost In The Moon” contained a shimmering, shooting star chorus that was launched on the back of a gorgeous, rolling piano melody. It was a strange track coming from Sammet, with a rounded, soft approach to the songwriting that owed more to classic rock n’ roll than the sharp edges and angles of metal. It was the first time he simultaneously wore the Jim Steinman influence on his sleeve and yet transcended it at the same time. At just under ten minutes in length, it was an ambitious album opener too —- and I’ve heard so many bands try the epic as the opener gambit that have fallen flat on their faces and irreparably damaged an album’s pacing and momentum. Sammet must’ve felt confident that he had a gem on his hands then, and in another sign of confidence, took on this song solo on an album full of guest vocalists on all the other songs. The fantastic gospel choir backing vocalists singing half a beat behind him provided that soaring, spiritual uplift that lodged this song in comfort listening territory all through the year.

2. Sabaton – “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom” (from the album The Great War)

Built on insistent riff progressions and an inspired vocal melody from Joakim Broden, Sabaton found magic on the stirringly heroic “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”, a song about the exploits of the legendary T.E. Lawrence. There’s a riding on horseback through the desert rhythmic gallop at work here, and a swashbuckling swing to the chorus, suggestive of the derring-do ascribed to Lawrence himself in the lyrics. Largely devoid of keyboards, it was also refreshingly aggressive for Sabaton, built on the mechanized rhythm guitar of Chris Rörland and wild, flashy fireworks of Tommy Johansson. It was the clear highlight off The Great War, and should go down as an all-time classic for the band, and to my ears its their best song to date.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2019)

3. Idle Hands – “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” (from the album Mana)

Truth be told, there were a few songs off Idle Hands incredible debut album that could’ve wound up on this list, in fact I had “Give Me To The Night” and “Jackie” shortlisted for it, but I think it was going to be inconceivable to not include the strange, slightly mystical “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?”. Built on a Queensryche-ian bassline and guitarist Sebastian Silva’s chiming chord strums, this is a moody ballad that’s too dark and metaphorical to call a power ballad. Singer Gabriel Franco narrates us through his weird fantastical dream world with his emotional yet plaintive sounding vocals, sounding detached and possessed of a raw urgency at once. In the song’s apex, Franco counts down from eight to usher in Silva’s incredible, Latin-rock tinged solo, a transcendent moment that is as thrilling as it is weird.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2019)

4. Ancient Bards – “Light” (from the album Origine – The Black Crystal Sword Saga Part 2)

Ancient Bards are no strangers to ballads, but when they released “Light” just ahead of their fourth album Origine, they raised a few eyebrows. It was a lush piano and vocals centric affair that was dewy-eyed and heart on sleeve, something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Frozen 2 soundtrack. Its glossy, 4kHD music video juxtaposed interpretive dance intercut with singer Sara Squadrani dressed to the nines while singing on the shore of the Adriatic Sea at sunrise. This somehow landed on a conceptual fantasy story driven album? How did that even make sense? It didn’t, but Ancient Bards did it anyway because they had the wisdom to realize that a great song shouldn’t be ignored or stuffed into the vault just because its screamingly different or gasp, even non-metal to its very essence. There are guitars towards the end, including a sugary sweet solo, but by then you’re already miming along to Squadrani doing your best Celine Dion impression. Get. Into. It.

5. Swallow The Sun – “Here On The Black Earth” (from the album When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light)

The gut wrenching, agonizingly sad emotional center of one of the bleakest albums of this decade, nevermind the year, “Here On The Black Earth” is not an easy listen. It is however, a rewarding one musically speaking, its gripping musical refrain and lyrical motif colliding in a chorus that sends shivers down your arm. The lyrics here are elegiac, woven with imagery of the natural world and flesh and bone. Of course if you’re aware of the backstory behind this record, you’ll know that Juha Raivio was writing from a deeply personal perspective, yet he was also self-aware enough to keep things ultimately vague, providing space for this song to attach itself to anyone’s grief or sadness. The vocal performance by Mikko Kotamäki is fierce and empathetic, he really sinks into the brutal nature of the lyrics on his harsh vocal explosions, while allowing his clean vocals to sound slightly detached and deadened. That’s a tough ask of any singer but you get the feeling that he just knew what to do, and up and did it.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2019)

6. Frozen Crown – “In The Dark” (from the album Crowned In Frost)

Embodying the very essence of what we love the most about power metal, Italy’s Frozen Crown delivered a gem with “In The Dark”. It’s a tightly written gem burning with an empowering and defiant spirit, with a perfectly sculpted, fully arcing chorus. Vocalist Giada Etro is a dynamic singer, maintaining crispness and intensity through nuanced verses, with effortless transitions to a soaring belt during the refrain. Alongside songwriter/guitarist/co-vocalist Federico Mondelli, the pair are integral to what has become the most exciting new power metal debut on the European mainland in recent years. There’s a youthful vigor to the sound here that is exciting to behold, the kind of thing we heard on Edguy and Sonata Arctica records back in the late 90s. And alongside their compatriots in Temperance and Ancient Bards, they’re redefining what Italian power metal can sound like, and that’s something I’d never have imagined possible a few years ago.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2019)

7. Avatarium – “The Fire I Long For” (from the album The Fire I Long For)

Sneakily released in late November (Nuclear Blast should know better), this one almost eluded me, but thankfully I caught it in time to consider just how much Avatarium have transitioned away from their 70’s occult rock/doom hybrid into a band that embraces a wider artistic palette. Whether the stepping away of Candlemass founder Leif Edling has been the impetus of change or it was merely a natural artistic progression, there’s a wider range of influences at work throughout their new album. Here on the gorgeous, smoldering title track, vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith channels darker, alt-country chanteuses such as Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, and fellow Swede Nina Persson. This is a hypnotic song, lush and full of depth and artistry, both in Smith’s expressive vocals but also in guitarist Marcus Jidell’s inspired, loose, dark-countrified licks. Don’t skip this tune.

8. Dialith – “The Sound Of Your Voice” (from the album Extinction Six)

The lead off track from one of the year’s most visceral and exciting releases, “The Sound Of Your Voice” is the likely introduction for many to Connecticut(!) symphonic metallers Dialith, having been a full-length YouTube ad that a lot of folks may have stumbled upon whilst watching other videos. It’s a remarkable song on its own, not least for its perfect encapsulation of Dialith’s many interlocking musical elements, but for its euphoric, triumphant spirit streaking through it, particularly in the latter half of the song. Through a combination of crunchy and dense melodeath riffing, restrained keyboard symphonics, and the serene yet strong vocals of
Krista Sion, Dialith have single-handedly brought a fresh perspective to what symphonic metal could and should sound like. And just to put into perspective how utterly spectacular Extinction Six is as an album, I also had “Break The Chains” and “In Every Breath” as nominees for this list as well. As you might predict, this isn’t the last time I’ll be writing about Dialith this year…

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2019)

9. Everfrost – “Winterider” (from the album Winterider)

Everfrost was one of those unexpected, out of nowhere surprises this year, and they arrived like a good priest with the timely heals in your mmorpg party (in the game of your choice of course —- shout out to any old Shadowbane players!), swooping in to comfort us in the wake of Sonata Arctica’s disastrous new album with a blast of sugary, wintry old school Finnish power metal. It’s hard to imagine a more timely release. But founding member/keyboardist Benjamin Connelly gets credit for being more than just the sum of his influences, being a sharp songwriter capable of crafting razor sharp hooks in songs imbued with a sense of freshness and fun. Case in point is the title track “Winterider”, which features one of the most satisfying opening keyboard/guitar riffs in power metal history, and packs as much energy as possible in its tight, compact synth melodies and urgent guitars. The band’s anime/manga aesthetic clearly leaves more than just a visual imprint on the band, with the frenetic, insistent pacing of this song reminding me of equal parts Galneryus and J Rock as it does the ultra-fast cutting and editing of the most hyperbolic animes. The glorious finale from the 3:26 moment onwards is what got this track on this list, bringing an adrenaline rush so addictive that I needed a daily fix.

10. Gloryhammer – “Gloryhammer” (from the album Legends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex )

It would be downright disingenuous to leave this track off the best songs list, considering how much I listened to it throughout the year, surprising not only myself but those around me who’d heard me grumble about bands like Gloryhammer in the past. Well opinions can change over time and shout out to the crew in the r/PowerMetal community for yet another thing they’ve managed to foist upon my playlists, because it was their enthusiasm for Gloryhammer that caused me to consider their new album this year with fresh ears and an open mind. It was the eponymous single “Gloryhammer” that was the clear cut apex of an already excellent album, with a hook built on a classic power metal mid-tempo strut and a high arcing vocal melody. The secret to pulling off such ridiculous lyrics lies in vocalist Thomas Winkler’s commanding performance —- his voice is rich with character, affecting the heroic pomp of the character he’s playing without resorting to pure theatrics. Hear the way he shout-sings “…since 1992!”, a minor detail but something that makes me crack a smile every time I hear it. Credit to bandleader/songwriter Christopher Bowes, who quite simply HAD to deliver the band’s most catchy, anthemic, and yes powerful song if he insisted on it being about the band’s namesake weapon. By gods he did it.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2018 // Part Two: The Albums

This was undoubtedly the most difficult to narrow down year-end albums list I’ve ever had to put together. It involved whittling down a sizable nominee pool to the final ten, the last spot of which I must’ve switched out well over a dozen times, constantly rethinking myself out of making a final decision. As I’ve always done, I prefer to only list and discuss what I think were the ten best songs and albums in these lists, not my top 25 or 50 or more that some other sites do. I think sticking to a tight ten forces you to really think about what you listened to the most over the year, and more importantly what really blew you away instead of merely satisfied you. Albums that I really enjoyed at various points throughout the year aren’t here, not because they’ve fallen out of favor, but simply because there were other amazing releases crowding the field. It was a great year to be a metal fan. Let me know in the comments below if you agreed or disagreed with this list! 

1.   Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs:

In a year packed full of remarkable new albums by newcomers and veterans alike, a few of which would’ve been able to top a year-end list at any other time, Orphaned Land’s conceptual Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs towered above them all —- and it wasn’t ever close. After I penned my original glowing review of the album, I wondered if its extremely early release date (January 26th) would’ve eroded my enthusiasm for it as the year wore on. Whenever that question would pop up at random times many months later, I’d give the album a spin and would have those doubts immediately erased. I even gave myself a wide berth from the band after seeing them live for the first time ever in Austin at a spellbinding show on their May tour with Týr and Aeternam, thinking that the intoxication surrounding that experience (and repeated listening thru their entire catalog) would’ve clouded my judgment. Yet even after that level of precaution; when I sit here now in December and consider everything I’ve listened to over the year, and think about the nine other records that made the cut out of the nominee pool, I can honestly say that I’ve never been as confident as I am right now about declaring that this is the unquestionable album of the year.

Here Orphaned Land leans harder than ever before into the incorporation of Middle-Eastern folk melodies and instrumentation, infusing it in every song, weaving it not only through moments of delicate beauty but around their most pummeling, aggression laden riffs. The result is their most perfect, most fully realized recording to date, a flawless fusion of those two disparate worlds of sound. The songs are wildly diverse in style, tempo, and structure, the melodies lush and vibrant, and Kobi Farhi turns in the most inspired vocal melodies and performances of his career. He also delivers some of his angriest lyrics ever, but smartly channels everything through the compelling concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, giving narrative shape and structure to what is ostensibly an anguished protest album. The co-MVPs here might be guitarists Chen Balbus and new guy Idan Amsalem; who together not only erase any worries over the departure of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, but put their stamp all over this album, unleashing waves of creative guitar and expressive bouzouki. The band also wisely chose to carry over from All Is One the use of an extensive supporting ensemble of choir singers, Middle Eastern percussionists and string players. It sounds like a lot. It sounds like it could be a mess in the wrong hands, but Orphaned Land has this music in their DNA. Their greatest strength is in knowing how to write songs that incorporate Middle Eastern folk melody as an integral, structural foundation of their music as opposed to mere window dressing. 

2.   Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

It’s not the time nor place to go into it here, but when I do eventually attempt to make my case in writing that we’re in the midst of a truly inspired global power metal resurgence in these past couple years, albums like Visigoth’s Conqueror’s Oath will be part of the bedrock on which I build my argument. Part of why I’ve found myself paying far more attention to newer power metal bands coming out of the States and Canada is their tendency to unabashedly wrap their arms around the genre’s traditions and tropes both, almost reveling in their over the top nature and yearning for epic storytelling (such as last year’s album of the year Apex by Unleash the Archers). Visigoth simplified their approach for their sophomore record, leaning harder in the Manilla Road / Manowar / Virgin Steele direction, and the result is the most outwardly joyful record of the year. It was also my most played album throughout the year, just perma-lodging itself in my playlist for those daily commutes to work, the long drive to the other side of Houston for gigs, and on the old headphones while ambling through the grocery store. Songs like “Warrior Queen” are full of inventive twists amidst the trad-and-true, glory claw raising thunder, and “Blades In The Night” is the kind of perfect, anthemic magic you wish more power metal bands could manage to achieve. You know an album is awesome when it makes waiting for your oil change to finish a pleasure.

3.   Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:

I’m prepared now to expect the unexpected with Thrawsunblat, who chose to follow up 2016’s year end list making Metachthonia with this all acoustic album, the decision itself being somewhat eyebrow raising. That it wasn’t an album full of maritime balladry ala “Maritime Shores”/”Goose River” from their first album was perhaps the bigger surprise, because guitarist-vocalist Joel Violette seemed to be a natural at that style. Instead he and drummer Rae Amitay (also of Immortal Bird fame) worked up songs that were strikingly aggressive, uptempo, and energetic yet still woodsy, rustic, and incense smoke scented. Things veer from the lush prettiness of the title track to the anthemic spirituality of song of the year listee “Via Canadensis” to the violent, furious roil of “Thus Spoke The Wind”, where Violette and Amitay employ tremolo riffing and blastbeat accented percussion —- on acoustic instruments remember! This was a clever, inspired re-imagining of what folk metal could be, an expansion of the very definition of the genre. More than that however, it was a personal sounding album that echoed with strains of the northeastern Canadian folk music that inspired it.

4.   Therion – Beloved Antichrist:

For many, Therion’s massive, three-disc spanning opera (like, an actual opera!) Beloved Antichrist was an immediate write off. I’m almost positive that the majority of folks who managed to take the step of listening through its entirety the one time never went back to it, and most never got past hearing a single track on YouTube or Spotify, and hey, I get it. As I remarked in my massively deep diving review for this project back in February, few Therion fans were happy about the band taking a half decade plus leave of absence for this project. Understandably, they might’ve been a tad less forgiving than usual when initially hearing the thing, and at first I wasn’t either —- that is until I switched my mindset to okay, I’m listening to the soundtrack to a stage performance, not a metal album mode that I was finally able to begin appreciating what Therion had achieved here. There are a heap of musical treasures within this thing, moments I came back to throughout the year repeatedly (“To Shine Forever” landed on the best songs list). I do think one’s enjoyment of it hinges on whether you can appreciate not just classical music, but opera as a musical form itself. I had to check myself and make sure my Therion fanboy wasn’t showing in putting this so high on this list, but sure enough, it was one of my most played through albums this year according to iTunes playcounts. I’d put it on in the background night after night when working on other things, but sometimes I’d sit and really focus on the lyrics, and I got to know the plot pretty well and had fun with it. Its a gargantuan achievement in its own right, something that was labored over for years by a composer who had already proven himself to be a wizard at marrying metal and classical music. If anything, Therion’s pedigree should warrant your giving it a second chance.

5.   Hoth – Astral Necromancy:


This was truly one of the year’s out of left field, standout surprises. I’d never heard of Hoth before (the band, not the planet…), but they completely captured my attention with this compulsively listenable opus of intricate, shifting, and downright unpredictable melodic black metal. Hoth’s music is a contradiction; it’s icy in tone befitting the band’s name, as bleakly cold and unforgiving as you would want a two person black metal band to sound. Yet these songs are loaded with major chord sequences that jet out of nowhere with an almost power metal-ish joyfulness. You hear a nice cross-section of all those traits on “The Living Dreams of a Dead God” where seemingly triumphant, Blind Guardian-esque major key guitars inform the lead melodies over the top of that deathly cold tremolo riff underneath. Vocalist/lyricist Eric Peters has the perfect tone for these songs, withering and fell, like an actual necromancer’s voice careening down a snowy, windswept mountainside to chill your very heart. But again, no matter how awesome the black metal aspects are, what really grabs me are these perfectly written power metal soaked melodic counterweights, to add splashes of sharp colors to what is ostensibly a gray affair. You might be wondering why I’m so taken aback by the addition of melody to extreme metal, not exactly a new or fresh concept to be sure, but just give my enthusiasm the benefit of the doubt and listen to this record. Its likely that its very much unlike anything you’ve heard before.

6.   Elvenstorm – The Conjuring:

Storming out of the apparently secret power metal stronghold of Grenoble, France(?!), Elvenstorm sailed under many radars way back in July when they released the most vicious, devastatingly aggressive album of thrashy, speedy power metal this year. If you only hear the intro melody and first riff sequence on album opener “Bloodlust”, you’ll probably think these guys are from Germany, so indebted to Kreator and early 90s speed metal tinged Blind Guardian is their rocketing guitar attack. But then you’ll hear vocalist Laura Ferreux swoop in, with her wild, almost punk edged melodic vocal and that français accent echoing off canyon walls. She’s likely to be a make or break proposition for many, her vocals often unnerving raw, but I think she’s one of the strengths of this record, her careening voice matching the intensity of Michael Hellström’s explosive riffing. Like Visigoth with Conqueror’s Oath, there’s an infectious enthusiasm here for old school metal, that bullet belt attitude and defiant strut. What makes Elvenstorm stand apart from anyone else is their straight-faced manner of going about it, something one could almost think of as charming. There’s a passion and intensity ripping through these expertly crafted songs —- that they hit me with something resembling the force of a hurricane is why The Conjuring is on this list.

7.   Exlibris – Innertia:

Soaring out of Warsaw as if in protest of all the attention we’re lavishing onto the great power metal pouring out of Canada and the States lately, Poland’s Exlibris dropped the best Euro-power album of the year in Innertia. This was my introduction to the band, and it turns out to be perhaps the best possible point of entry as its the debut of new singer Riku Turunen, the absolute tour de force of this album. Call him the Patrick Mahomes of power metal in 2018, but I haven’t been this bowled over by a new vocal talent in the scene in ages. His voice has the pure raw power of Mandrake-era Tobias Sammet with the distinctive pronounciation inflections of Timo Kotipelto. You might have already read about best song listee “Shoot For the Sun”, where he proves himself as a leading man in an ever soaring duet, but check out his jaw dropping range in “Incarnate” or his command of theatrics in “No Shelter”. Beyond amazing vocal performances, these are simply expertly crafted songs, structured around earwormy hooks yet loaded with progressive metal twists and turns. Daniel Lechmański’s guitars sound meaty ala Tad Morose or Brainstorm, and his riffs and chord progressions are all intriguing in their balance of straight ahead rockin’ and rich complexity. Speaking of balance, his having to bounce off of keyboardist Piotr Sikora instead of another guitarist seems to be a source of fruitful inspiration between the two. There’s a push and pull going on between each of their lead melody lines that refuses to sit quietly in Turunen’s immense shadow. 

8.   Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods:

I really didn’t think Demonaz and Horgh could pull it off, rather naively thinking that an Abbath-less Immortal record was more likely to be a disaster than anything close to a success. And in my defense, what reasonable Immortal fan could think that Abbath’s departure would somehow make a new Immortal album better? It seems illogical on the face of it. But sometimes weird things happen, and there’s nothing weirder in 2018 than Immortal Mach 2 turning in the band’s best album since Sons of Northern Darkness, and maybe even a top three Immortal album overall. This is just a relentless, tireless rush of old school second wave black metal reminiscent of the band’s first four albums but tempered with the riff density and cold, crisp production of the post At the Heart of Winter era. Demonaz’ ice demon approach on vocals is pitch perfect for this blend of Immortal, grim and fierce but with a lengthy drawn out utterance that’s coupled with a surprising degree of enunciation, unlike Abbath’s bizarre frog gargoyle barking approach. The nine minute epic “Mighty Ravendark” barely missed out on making the best songs of the year list; its about as perfect an Immortal song as I can imagine, with an epic buildup and satisfying (dare I say hooky?) refrain built on clever vocal phrasing. I really can’t think of any time in recent memory when a band has lost a key member and somehow thrived as a result… I’d have to go back to what, Metallica perhaps? Iron Maiden after Dianno? Call it a comeback, maybe even the greatest comeback.

9.   Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Yet another in an increasingly longer line of excellent releases from North American power metal bands, The Last Emperor was my introduction to Arizona’s Judicator. As it turns out, it was the perfect introduction too, being their most early 90s Blind Guardian era inspired work, including a guest appearance by the bard Mr. Hansi Kursch himself. A lot has been written about this very apparent influence, and its hard to ignore for sure, but there’s so much more going on here than mere hero worship. Guitarist Tony Cordisco aimed to write songs that were not only tight and concise, but purposefully and methodically energetic throughout. There are no ballads here, although brief dips into acoustic territory help to spice up the intros or bridges of certain songs to keep things varied. Its intriguing to hear an American power metal band so infatuated with the traditional European interpretation of the style. I can hear jagged edges at the corners of Judicator’s sound, little things like the sharp teeth on that straight ahead attacking riff sequence in “Raining Gold”, or the early Iced Earth influence that comes through in vocalist John Yelland’s aggro counterpoint to Hansi in “Spiritual Treason”. Judicator also seems to be filling a sonic space in power metal that was long ago left vacant by the Blind Guardians and Helloweens and Edguys of the world, one I had long ago hoped would be filled by the now sadly quieted Persuader and Savage Circus. I don’t mind if my power metal bias is showing here, because Judicator is assuming the mantle of this specific style in the here and now as a recently formed power metal band delivering an amazing new album this year. This is the stuff that will keep the genre going strong into the future. Consider me grateful.

10.   Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:

This one might raise a few eyebrows, but I just could not deny how much I listened to Eonian throughout the year. It was an album that I would listen to when in the mood for something fierce and biting, but also when I wanted something orchestral and epic, as well as melodic and complex. I consider myself a Dimmu fan, but I had been critical of them throughout the years, not completely enjoying an album since 2001’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia. Not only was this the first time since then I could say that I loved a new Dimmu album from front to back, but its honestly up there right next to Enthrone Darkness Triumphant as my second favorite of all their albums. The inspired songwriting in “I Am Sovereign” reminds me of that legendary album’s sense of playfulness with black metal song structures; here with an inversion of blazing riffing in the chorus instead of the verses, with regal string punctuations that would sound at home in a Carach Angren song. The band took care to increase the distinctiveness of their major sonic elements this time around, instead of the usual symphonic black metal mash up they had been doing. On Eonian, the black metal parts sound more black metal than ever, and the orchestral parts lean just as hard into their majestic symphonic grandeur. Its a subtle distinction that allowed them to sharpen their songwriting, to shape these songs with muscular force and gorgeous expressiveness. Its a shame that just like Cradle of Filth with their truly excellent past two albums, Dimmu seems to be getting glossed over this year as having released more of the same. Those are lazy opinions from people who haven’t listened close enough. This is a career rejuvenating work from one of the genre’s most creative artists.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2018 // Part One: The Songs

This was a year bursting with awesome new releases, and I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but I’ve never had this much difficultly in putting together my year end lists. Fortunately the songs were a little easier than the albums to sort through, and I’ve been able to narrow down a list that includes not only highlights from spectacular albums, but isolated gems from otherwise unremarkable releases. These were almost always songs that I listened to more often than others, verified by iTunes play counts and my own shaky memory, but others were just instantaneous nominees based on their initial impact. I tortured myself for a few days with the ordering here, reworking things several times before feeling satisfied. Let me know in the comments below if you agreed or disagreed!

1.   Visigoth – “Warrior Queen” (from the album The Conqueror’s Oath)

On an album that made a Visigoth fan out of me, “Warrior Queen” was the unquestionable highlight for its combination of brawn and beauty. Built on 80s metal swagger, hard rock strut, thunderous riffs, and Jake Rogers gritty steel-cut voice, this would be a tremendous tune even without the emotive Jethro Tull moment in the middle. It comes in the form of a flute solo, courtesy of Rogers himself, accompanying his most Mathias Blad-ian vocal at the 3:44 mark, the cherry on the proverbial sundae. A song like this by a relatively new band shouldn’t work, it should reek of the worst kind of Manowar-isms, hamminess and self-importance —- but “Warrior Queen” is emblematic of something that’s seeping into the USPM/North American trad/power resurgence of these past few years: A sense of exuberance and fun with the very idea of metal itself, where cliches are comforts and cool ironic detachment is the worst kind of boring. 

2.   The Night Flight Orchestra – “Turn to Miami” (from the album Sometimes The World Ain’t Enough)

This was the culmination of six years worth of honing in on a perfect recreation of that late 70s/early 80s sound, not only in sound but in songwriting structure, vocal layering and slightly out of touch prog-rock pomposity. That “Turn to Miami” arrived on NFO’s fourth album is almost too perfect, their own path to a song like this mirroring the way we can imagine it would have for any successful band of that halcyon era. Its not the kind of song you throw on the debut or even the sophomore album. This tune arrives after a few gold and platinum albums, during that phase when the band is jet setting across the globe on private planes with champagne, parties on hotel rooftops with supermodels that go til sunrise, cocaine decorating the marble bathroom counter tops, and waking up to find David Coverdale passed out in an empty jacuzzi. NFO conjured up a sound here that’s glitzy, lush, and fervent with a huge assist from talented backing vocalists (the “Airline Annas”), and they also managed to dream up a music video that leaned into the idea of rich, self-important rockers wearing shoulder padded pastel sport coats selling a heady concept with barely disguised sexual overtones. 


3.   Kobra and the Lotus – “Let Me Love You” (from the album Prevail II)

The chief highlight from this year’s surprisingly strong Prevail II, “Let Me Love You” was the kind of song that Kobra and the Lotus had been needing to write for years now. An unabashedly emotive, some would say sappy song that pulled from the same vein of power rock that Pat Benatar and Heart mined in the 80s for inspiration. That this song has a hook that can rival the best of those artist’s major hits is a triumph for Kobra Paige and guitarist Jasio Kulakowski (who co-wrote this with former guitarist Jake Dreyer and producer Jacob Hansen, who seemingly can’t miss these days in his many many projects). Paige’s voice has that Doro-esque level of power but tempered with Ida Haukland’s range and emotive capability, and she knows how to time her inflections as well as Floor Jansen. While the band almost got there with last year’s single “Light Me Up” (from Prevail I), they’ve stumbled upon their first bonafide could-should-be radio hit… the question is whether that central guitar riff will be too heavy for programmers and leave this song in too commercial for metal / too metal for radio purgatory.

4.   Judicator – “Spiritual Treason” (from the album The Last Emperor)

Much has been said about Judicator’s obvious musical influence from Blind Guardian, so maybe it was a bit on the nose to feature the bard himself Mr. Hansi Kursch as a guest vocalist on “Spiritual Treason”. Yet credit the songwriting prowess of guitarist Tony Cordisco and vocalist John Yelland in crafting one of Hansi’s most electric and inspired guest vocalist spots to date. Keying in on Tales/Somewhere Far Beyond era Guardian in structure and spirit, this is a lean, muscular, speedy power metal epic the likes of which we’ve not heard Hansi sing on in ages. Yelland himself turns in a fine performance too, his slightly higher register a nice complement to Hansi’s, but Cordisco might actually get the star turn here —- from his frenetic riffery, his confident clean acoustic work, and that gorgeous multi-part solo. Andre Olbrich would be proud.

5.   Therion – “To Shine Forever” (from the album Beloved Antichrist)

This one stuck with me all throughout the year, the penultimate “song” on Therion’s massive, three disc/46 track behemoth opera Beloved Antichrist. Though many may have taken a single pass through this recording and rejected it as fast as a mouse click, I’ve found it to be a treasury of majestic musical moments. And the key term here is musical, set aside metal for a bit and just consider “To Shine Forever” as a beautiful, cinematic piece of music. This is a vivid slice of the kind of thing Therion has been captivating hearts and minds with from Theli onwards; chiming minor key acoustic guitars, sweepingly elegiac strings gracefully ushering the proceedings —- this time accompanying a pair of gorgeous classical voices entwined in a duet instead of Therion’s usual Accept meets Maiden rhythmic guitar attack. Its only flaw is that its too short, a mere 2:07 in run time, but its aching, longing emotional pulse, and its evocative lyrical poetry subsist long after its over.

6.   Omnium Gatherum – “The Frontline” (from the album The Burning Cold)

On a largely terrific album, “The Frontline” stood out for its almost retro Gothenburg sound and approach, instantly burning onto my mind with conjured up memories of classic era In Flames. It must’ve been the clean guitar patterns in the verse over Jukka Pelkonen’s slowly muttered vocals that brought me back to In Flames “Satellites and Astronauts” off Clayman, or maybe it was “Jester Script Transfigured” from Whoracle. Whatever it was, long suffering In Flames fans can instantly sniff out something that reminds us of that band’s long distant classic era, simply because few things sounded like it (even at the time). I’m not sure why OG, a Finnish band who has a very defined sound of their own stumbled onto this particular Swedish influence here, but it spawned an understated epic. The appeal of melodeath, regardless of country of origin is in its ability to convey incredible emotion without lyrics, and Markus Vanhala and Joonas Koto’s guitars cry out heart wrenching melancholy. They also merge their own OG sound into the mix at the 3:20 mark, with a keyboard lead into a guitar solo that rockets into the atmosphere. Forget crappy Christmas music, this is all the joy you need right here.

7.   Exlibris – “Shoot For the Sun” (from the album Innertia)

Arriving on the most convincing Euro-power metal album of the year, Exlibris’ Innertia, “Shoot For the Sun” is the kind of song that sounds so effortless, its melody so natural, yet so many bands struggle to write convincingly. It was the standout on an album completely void of mediocrity, and I’d find myself circling back to it for a few extra listens every time I played the album all the way through. The stars here are new vocalist Riku Turunen and guest vocalist Ann Charlotte Wikström, who pair together perfectly. Towards the end during that soaring, emotionally charged cliff hanger crescendo, both of their voices weave around each other in a dazzling display. Its rare for duets to find those moments, because its usually a trade off of vocal parts or two voices so uneven in power that one naturally outweighs the other. I’m particularly fond however of Turunen’s intro vocal, where you heard kaleidoscope shades of Timo Kotipelto and Tobias Sammett in tandem, a little detail that brings out the power metal fanboy in me.

8.   Judas Priest – “Guardians / Rising From Ruins” (from the album Firepower)

I think this would’ve been higher on this list had the album come out later in the year, because I burned myself out hard on playing this pairing over and over again. I’m including both “Guardians and “Rising From Ruins” as one entry because they are in essence one song, the former a direct intro for the latter and only arguable by the inclusion of a track separation marker on the album for whatever reason. I told the story of when I first heard this song on the MSRcast around that time (when was this? March-ish?) because I was actually driving to my cohost’s place to record a new episode of the podcast when it came on. Its in the middle of the album, the centerpiece ostensibly, and I was already more than impressed with everything I had been hearing, but this intro piece floored me. So jaw-droppingly beautiful is “Guardians”, with its crescendo piano and guitar buildup, so epic and goosebump inducing, that my only reaction was to start laughing like a right fool. I couldn’t stop, it was like my brain had been overcome by joy and was stuck in giddy mode. By the time “Rising From Ruins” came on I was already running through my mind what I was going to say about the record on the podcast —- a litany of superlatives, spittle flying in every direction as I’d rave like a prophet. Thankfully I composed myself to be a little more measured in the end, but these two pieces of music provoked one hell of an emotional reaction in me where few things do. 

9.   Suidakra – “Ode to Arma” (from the album Cimbric Yarns)

This was a special song on an experimental acoustic album that largely failed to move me otherwise, and a song that’s been in practically daily rotation since the album’s November release. Everything that works on “Ode to Arma”; the mystic tone, the pure emotive strength of Sebastian Jensen’s vocal, specific endearing lyrics, and the layering of unorthodox melodic arrangements are the very things that somehow work against the rest of the songs on the album —- in short, they struck gold here. Of particular note is the melodic shading by guest vocalist Sascha Aßbach, and the fragile piano utterances performed by Arkadius, both working to create a lushness to the soundscape that adds to the otherworldly feel at work. As I mentioned in my review for the album, I’m not too informed about the original fantasy concept underpinning things here. But the central lyric, “The farther you travel / the closer I hold in you my heart”, reminds me quite a bit of the stories of some RPGs I’ve played, even a little of Tolkien in certain Silmarillion steeped stories. Suidakra doesn’t really touch romantic themes all that much, but they handle it skillfully here, with ache and melancholy.

10.   Thrawsunblat – “Via Canadensis ” (from the album Great Brunswick Forest)

This was the most anthemic, joyful blast of woodsy, rustic noise on Thrawsunblat’s uniquely excellent acoustic blitz Great Brunswick Forest. That it starts off quirky, with those sharp frenetic attacking plucks of the strings in the acoustic guitar equivalent to a drum count-in is part of its incessant charm. Joel Violette also turns in one of his most captivating vocal hooks to date, built on the strength of the repeating “on we go” vocal fragment that sounds practically mythic when it lands during the nearly a capella bridge midway through. This is also his most positive lyric to date, a cathartic paean to the strength of spirit and moving forward. I particularly love when the electric guitar comes in, the band seemingly so charged by the song’s energy that they couldn’t help but unleash a blast of feedback and muted crunch to further rattle the cage. Drummer Rae Amitay’s aggressive performance here and throughout the album is worthy of praise on its own, and she seems to know just where to punctuate with an extra loud hit or three. This was a re-imagining of what folk metal could sound like, acoustic and woodsy sure, but uptempo and fierce.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2017 // Part Two: The Albums

 

 

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.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2017 // Part One: The Songs

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGCp3xcrybI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTWbVUUkWm4&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffQ2B5qegRg&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r_JlWf_Biw&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoGV9V_dHCk&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1effGoCTAnU&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CKERGAAWS9E&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMKykGYsmFY&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWNAjX8IKD8&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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):

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-NpB1JeMSI&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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.

 

 

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