The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2015 // Part One: The Songs

Finally! The beginning of the end to the most exhausting year of new metal releases I can ever remember. This is the first of the two-part year end Best of list I compile, a little delayed this time (in keeping with the 2015 theme), and this might actually be the more difficult of the two in selecting and narrowing down. My year end songs of the year list is always problematic because ultimately there is some crossover with the forthcoming best albums list, since some of these songs were key to making those albums the best of the year. But the songs list has to also represent those isolated gems that were discovered on otherwise flawed or not so great albums, and keeping the balance between the two is always tricky. In sticking with tradition and forcing myself to be very selective and honest, these lists are limited to ten, but they were narrowed down from a shortlisted pool of about 20-25 entries. Anyway, you know the drill by now, so to quote Kramer: “Giddy up!”

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2015:

 

 

1.  Steven Wilson – “Happy Returns” (from the album Hand. Cannot. Erase.)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_Cgyvj7Pf4&w=560&h=315]

 

I had suspected for awhile that this emotional gut-punch from Steven Wilson’s 2015 masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase. would wind up atop this list, despite competition from some strong contenders below. Its up here because its aching, emotive, transcendent, bleak, beautiful, sorrowful, melancholic, dreamy, nostalgic, and a whole list of adjectives more. Its also the emotional apex of the album, both in its musical approach and in its lyrical perspective/situation within the content of the album’s storyline (and if you’re unaware of what that is, I’ll refer you to my original write-up on the album). Whats clever is that it comes disguised as a pop-song, complete with a little McCartney styled ““doo-doo-doo-do” and some relatively simple acoustic guitar strummed chords. It serves as a hook in lieu of an actual chorus, because our narrator is in no state to say anything that she’d have to repeat —- the words she delivers are spare, direct, and heart-shattering in their immediacy: “Hey brother, happy returns / It’s been a while now / I bet you thought that I was dead”. The framing device is that Wilson’s isolated, living-alone-in-the-city female narrator (simply referred to as H.) is perhaps finally reaching out to a long sundered member of her family via writing a letter. Maybe she’s replying to a received Christmas card, hence the invocation of the phrase “happy returns” (more common in British English than American as a response to “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year”), or maybe she’s initiating contact herself —- we’re never told and its left to the imagination.

Whats not left to us to decipher is her emotional state —- teetering on the edge of hopelessness she tells her brother, “I feel I’m falling once again / But now there’s no one left to catch me”. One of the most devastating verses you’ll ever hear sits precisely in the heart of the song, from the 1:32-1:58 mark, its lyrics filled with the kind of sorrow borne from regret and despair: “Hey brother, I’d love to tell you / I’ve been busy / But that would be a lie / Cause the truth is / The years just pass like trains / I wave but they don’t slow down, don’t slow down”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this song throughout the year, but every time I’m completely emotionally engaged, and I’ll tell you… that imagery of the passing train just hits me like I’m standing on the tracks myself. This is not an easy song to listen to. You can’t let it play when your iPod is on shuffle because you’re simply not ready for its gravity, it will sink you and only cause you to play it again and again because your mood will have shifted and the Dream Evil song that was supposed to come next would sound like static in your current state of mind. Its a song that’s haunted, and like any ghost worth its name it begins to haunt you.

There was another song from the same album that I shortlisted as one of the Best Songs of 2015, that being “Perfect Life”, the other sibling related song, being about the narrator’s one-time foster sister before the divorce of her parents. It would’ve been the most bizarre entry to one of my year end lists to date, a Saint Etienne styled bass n’ drum construct with female narration and Wilson’s repeating coda arranged as more of a trip-hop affair than anything resembling rock or metal. Similarly “Happy Returns” is quite far removed from those two genres, but its inclusion on this list I believe is warranted not only because of the simple fact that I reviewed the album, but because Wilson’s connections to metal are long and deep. Set aside his production work with Opeth and Orphaned Land, or even his role in helping once doom-metallers Anathema evolve into their current progressive rock state. The man’s approach to music in terms of songwriting, musicianship, arrangement, and thematic vision shares so much in common with the values of many metal artists. Speaking of Anathema, longtime readers will remember their inclusion on this list not once, but twice in the past few years. As was the case with my Anathema inclusions, I simply couldn’t be dishonest with myself (and you by extension) and exclude a song from this kind of list simply because it didn’t sound remotely metallic. If its inclusion here prompts someone to further investigate more of Steven Wilson’s music, then I’m further justified in my decision.

 

 

2. Blind Guardian – “Distant Memories” (from the album Beyond the Red Mirror)

 

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

 

I was puzzled by Blind Guardian’s decision to release an abridged “standard” version of their newest album Beyond the Red Mirror, because the limited/earbook/vinyl editions of the album came with two additional tracks in “Doom” and “Distant Memories”. They were technically bonus tracks in that regard, except that this was a concept album, and they actually fit into the storyline devised by Hansi, to such an extent that when placed back into the overall skeleton of the album “Distant Memories” ended up at track number six, altering the entire standard edition sequencing (see the differences for yourself). I get that you need something to entice fans to splurge on the special editions of a new album, but usually that comes in the form of b-sides or a cover song or two. It shouldn’t come at the expense of the album’s most brilliant moment, and its unfortunate that there might be fans out there enjoying the “standard” edition of the new Blind Guardian album without realizing that they are missing out. And man would they be missing out, because “Distant Memories” is not just the best song on the album, its one of the most beautiful songs the band has ever written, a kinetically charged quasi-power ballad that seems out of time and place.

It starts out fairly casually, with Andre’s playful guitar figures dancing over some subtle woodwinds, but then the band crashes in and Hansi takes over the director’s chair with a vocal melody so impatient to display its own brilliance that we’re treated to the chorus at the :44 second mark. Said chorus is only one of the highlights in this glorious epic, but its one you will return to forever, even if you don’t really understand what its lyrics are going on about in terms of the album’s concept. They’re mysterious even when taken out of context: “But still they don’t know / They’re just caught in distant memories / Then these fools will fade away / They may not fear the fall”, yet despite their opaqueness I still find them captivating and entrancing because its the manner in which they’re sung that gives them their power. On the back of Frederik’s thundering drums, Andre and Marcus’ rhythmic guitar phrasing, majestic swells of a distant orchestra, and the sweet rivers of choral background vocals, Hansi delivers his deceptively simple lead vocal with sublime extensions of line-ending syllables. Every part is integral, the combination of everything building up to a sound that I don’t even think there’s adequate language to describe —- you listen to it and tell me, that’s not a happy sounding chorus right? Yet its not sad or angry either, its simultaneously all of those things at once and none of them at the same time. When I consider those lyrics, I think that our narrator is expressing some type of disappointment, perhaps even resignation, but the music they’re sung over says otherwise.

That ability to create music that defies written interpretation is what makes Blind Guardian not just one of the greatest metal bands of all time, but one of the greatest bands of all time —- all genres. Period. Stop. Okay, on the back of such effusive praise, why isn’t this listed at the number one spot on this list? Well I have a small gripe about the production, and the sequence that best exemplifies what I’m thinking of cues in at the 3:07-3:41 mark. We’re treated to a heart-stopping, adrenaline-racing increase in tempo and intensity in Hansi’s vocal delivery, “Whatever the cost / It will not be redeemed…”, and we can hear the orchestra swell in reaction, about to slam us against the wall with some Hollywood inspired/James Horner/Howard Shore/Michael Kamen styled sturm und drang. And it happens, sort of… you can hear it happening but thanks to an unforgivable oversight in the mix at this exact moment, you don’t feel the jolt and thrust of the booming timpani, the anger of the brass section, the near panicked notes of the woodwinds and strings in an attempt to keep everyone together. They all just get compressed and pushed below, buried under guitars and layers of vocals at a time when they should be threatening to over take the whole she-bang altogether. For quite a few people, this was a recurring complaint about the album as a whole, and one I hope will urge the band to revisit it a few years down the line in the form of a remix as they have with most of their catalog.

 

 

3.  Angra – “Silent Call” (from the album Secret Garden)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7SBG1dRY6Cc&w=560&h=315]

 

There’s a reflective, almost meditative quality to this spare ballad found at the end of Angra’s Secret Garden, built on the interplay of Rafael Bittencourt’s impassioned lead vocal melody and the backing vocals that snake around him in lush layers. Its in one of those layers where we presumably hear new Angra vocalist Fabio Leone, who has been seen providing backup vocal support on this song at live shows and spots on television shows where they’ve taken a fancy to airing out the tune. They’d be silly not to, this could and should easily be a smash hit back home in Brazil —- its an easy song to love (just take a look at how many cover versions have already sprouted up on YouTube in the span of a year). In my original review of Secret Garden I noted how odd it was that much of the album didn’t feature Leone on lead vocals alone, often casting him as a partner with a guest like Simone Simons or Bittencourt himself (the latter enjoying his own duet with Doro Pesch on the excellent “Crushing Room”). Its not the expected way in which you’d want to indoctrinate your new vocalist or introduce him to your fans, but then it seems that years of various band-related problems of all sorts have pushed Bittencourt to a place where he’s discarding all expectations, structures, and rules. He gets away with it for the most part on the album largely on the strength of his own lead vocal performances —- I’m honestly asking, why can’t Bittencourt just handle the lead vocals himself? I love his voice.

What makes “Silent Call” such a poignant, emotive, and wistful song is found within its lyrics, with a narrator attempting to describe the feeling he has when staring at transcendent scenes of natural beauty. We’re placed alongside him with the line “I find myself lost in the Swedish night / Sunset it’s crying in the sky”, and in case you’re wondering, yes the album was recorded at at Fascination Street Studios in Orebro, Sweden (Jens Bogren country!). I’m particularly fond of the phrasing of “New day, sunrise / Sound the trumpets of the dawn” and Bittencourt’s vocal melody during its delivery, almost see-saw like in its ascending and descending crescendos. His ultra impassioned inflections during the final verse are all exposed nerve endings, raw in their intensity: “Spread my wings and fly / Only guided by faith / Through the darkness or light / May have the “whys?” / It’s always the same” —- its the kind of performance that suggests an expression of frustration. I like the idea of a song written about being unable to effectively communicate a kind of spiritual feeling received from witnessing something that can’t adequately be described by language. All our narrator can do is merely mention whats running through his mind during the experience, such as “…an old bag full of recent memories / Many laughs and many cries”, but that’s enough, the melodies at work here are all we need as listeners to be transported to that specific time and place.

 

 

4.  Witchbound – “Sands of Time” (from the album Tarot’s Legacy)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0G3M5rRPZ-k&w=560&h=315]

 

Witchbound caught my attention in 2015 due to the curious circumstances of their formation —- they’re essentially a band formed in tribute to the recently deceased Stormwitch founder Lee Tarot. Former original Stormwitch members Ronny Gleisberg and Stefan Kauffman joined together with a handful of other ex-Stormwitch guys (from different eras of the band) and a fantastic unknown vocalist in Thorsten Lichtner to finish the final songs that Tarot had left behind unrecorded. In my original review, I wrote of the project’s inception:

Things like this have been done before for other deceased musicians, and they’re always well meaning, while almost always garnering some kind of press and media attention. In this case, there’s very little of that —- a fact that makes Witchbound’s efforts all the more poignant. Unless you’re a metal historian, chances are that Stormwitch isn’t a name that’s familiar to you: They never really blew up in any way in during their heyday, their exposure to American audiences was limited to import mail order catalogs (I don’t even think they had an American distribution deal), and they were never able to crack their home country of Germany like their peers in Grave Digger, Accept, Helloween, and later Blind Guardian.

As heartwarming as the spirit and intention of the project is, it wouldn’t be on this list unless it contained something truly fantastic —- and the real surprise is that the entire album is totally worth your time and attention, containing perhaps Tarot’s finest songwriting to date. Its muscular, traditional German heavy metal that’s spiced up with diverse instrumentation and songwriting styles. There’s triumphant, fist-pumping metallic anthems such as “Mandrake’s Fire” and “Mauritania”, but also thoughtfully composed balladry such as “Trail of Stars”. The diamond among the bunch was the shimmering, utterly gorgeous “Sands of Time”, a power ballad built on a slowly escalating bass line, chiming acoustic guitar patterns and tension building riffs. It crests when Lichtner explodes on the chorus, with a melody that soars to the very heights its referencing in its lyric: “Staring at the stars each night, waiting for a sign / Writing down four lines – a vision to rhyme…”. Credit to Lichtner on this one, because his phrasing here is impeccable, and he really just owns the vocalist role all over the album, delivering incredible performances and sounding better to my ears than original Stormwitch vocalist Andy Aldrian ever did. He’s the MVP performance wise on the album, but Tarot himself gets the overall MVP for penning such inspired songs. With “Sands of Time”, he may have delivered his best one ever, with a degree of complexity to its Medici-referencing lyrics as well as an undeniable hook that would’ve sounded at home on an Avantasia album. I’d like to think that Tarot would’ve loved what these guys did with his unfinished songs, if he only had a chance to hear them. I know I did.

 

 

5.  Subterranean Masquerade – “Blanket of Longing” (from the album The Great Bazaar)

 

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

 

Quietly the multi-national Subterranean Masquerade released one of the most satisfyingly melodic, complex, and challenging albums of the year. I had no idea that this was their second album (first in a decade though), nor any idea who Tomer Pink was, the guitarist and songwriter at the heart of this band that consists of members from Israel, Norway and the United States. Those last two are Kjetil Nordhus and Paul Kuhr (of Tristania and November’s Doom respectively), Nordhus handling clean vocal leads with his accented prog-rock delivery while Kuhr delivers the brutality in his distinctive doom-death vocal style. The band’s sound is a diverse blend of ethnic Middle-Eastern music, progressive rock ala Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, and Oriental metal in the vein of Orphaned Land (whose Kobi Farhi does guest vocals on two tracks on the album). It was an album that came out of nowhere, just a random promo I got one day that I had no background on. I kept coming back to the album throughout the year, finding it a pleasure to listen to for its sheer force of personality and some seriously excellent songwriting by Pink. His best one is the emotionally charged semi-ballad “Blanket of Longing”, itself a microcosm for the band’s overall sound, containing a little bit of everything they’re capable of. The real star here is Nordhus, whose clean lead vocals are simply superb, his emotive inflections during the chorus particular stirring: “Often I go back to that picture of my little boy / And I just can’t cry anymore…”. When I hear prog-metal written and performed like this, I know why other more technicality focused prog-rock/metal bands fail to move me. It should always start with a melody worth remembering, not one forgettable riff after another.

 

 

6.  Luciferian Light Orchestra – “Church of Carmel” (from the album Luciferian Light Orchestra)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtpRXa3V4Pk&w=560&h=315]

 

Its a subtle bit of irony that in an era when new retro occult metal and rock bands are getting signed left and right after the success of Ghost, one of the most intriguing projects in that vein comes from a musician that predates all those guys, namely, Therion’s Christofer Johnsson. This is a side project of his with a handful of musician friends, the only known name we have from this bunch being vocalist/photographer Mina Karadzic. According to whomever runs Therion’s social media (I suspect Johnsson himself on all fronts) Karadzic does not handle lead vocals on this particular song so I have no name to place to the gorgeous, breathy singing that adorns this gem. I’ve seen a couple people point to one Mari Paul, a relatively unknown Finnish vocalist who does seem to match the description of the woman singing in its music video, so credit to her if that’s true because the lead vocal at work here truly makes this a stellar slice of atmospheric yet hooky occult rock. There’s something seductive both sensually and spiritually about the vocal melody and the lyrics, the latter specific in its audience: “Young girl, come close / Undress and pray”. Longtime Therion lyricist Thomas Karlsson penned the lyrics on the album, and he draws upon his extensive experience in esoteric studies to inform his lyrical imagery (“A naked altar / and a priest with horn / a shade of Abbé Boullan / kneel and drink the Lord”). A part of me feels that the lyrical content here is partially tongue-in-cheek, but with a hook this magnificent we should all be joining in on the Sabbath anyway.

 

 

7.  Kamelot – “Fallen Star” (from the album Haven)

 

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

 

Look I know I just did it above but normally I try to avoid quoting myself —- it makes me uncomfortable and I fear it could come across as a little egotistical, but I raved about this song when I first reviewed Haven and everything I wrote about it then I still feel now, so take it away Ghost of Metal Pigeon Past:

The path towards a future golden era for the band begins with the eternal classic “Fallen Star”, a supreme and glorious a moment that echoes the height of the Khan era in both melody and lyricism. Karevik’s piano accompanied solo intro to the song sets the tone and signals the approach —- that his vocal melodies will serve as the driving force and everything will yield to his will. In the mid-song instrumental bridge, Youngblood’s guitar solo echoes the vocal melody slightly by playing off its motifs, something he is peerless at. Karevik’s lyrics are evocative, with an almost Khan-like air of poetic imagery: “You are my reason to stay / Even if daylight’s a lifetime away / May the kings and the queens of the dawn / Remember my name / As dark as the fallen star”. The vocal melody guiding these words is cascading, rising and falling gently like a sloping hill, its shape infusing the lyrics with its required blend of romance and melancholy. It might be the best overall Kamelot song in a decade, a gem that matches the brilliance of songs from their classic era albums, and perhaps their best album opener ever.

Any guesses as to how bummed I was that the band didn’t play this on the recent Houston stop of their North American trek with Dragonforce? It would’ve been one thing to simply not hear it, but two of the three tunes they did play from Haven were my least favorite from what was largely an excellent album (I’m referring to “Revolution” and “Here’s To The Fall” —- the latter gets a pass because Tommy announced that he was singing it in tribute to his recently departed grandfather, but the former was just as meh live as it was on the album). I hope that Youngblood and company realize that the best way forward on future albums to continually cede more songwriting space to Karevik, he seemed to have a hand on about 75% of Haven, and its very noticeable what songs he had a direct role in shaping primary melodies and motifs. If every vocalist has a signature song or calling card, I nominate “Fallen Star” as Karevik’s for his Kamelot career (wouldn’t want to offend any Seventh Wonder die-hards out there!).

 

 

8.  Nightwish – “Weak Fantasy” (from the album Endless Forms Most Beautiful)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IEsS6NNt3Bo&w=560&h=315]

 

Tuomas Holopainen rarely fails to find someway to astound me, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard “Weak Fantasy”, driving around on various errands while playing the album through for the first time. I was in a shopping center parking lot maneuvering around to find an exit, nodding my head in rhythm Emppu’s sledgehammer riffs and marveling at how powerful Floor Jansen’s voice sounded right alongside the mighty co-lead vocals of Marco Hietala when the folky mid-song bridge kicked in and then 3:34-4:31 happened. I had to pull over into an empty area of the parking lot and simply sit there and let everything wash over me —- the violently swooping in strings, sounding as if they were the soundtrack to some hyper exaggerated ballroom waltz, Marco’s passionate vocal eruption while singing some of Tuomas’ most vitriolic lyrics ever. I hope it was as jaw dropping a moment for others as it was for me, because few songwriters are as attuned to conducting pure, broiling, emotional drama as our guy Tuomas. Oh make no mistake, you’re reading the blog of someone who is an unabashed Holopainen homer, and just like homers in sports fandom, we can criticize our rooting interest, dissect their decision making, persevere through their low points, and ignore their weaker tendencies. Why? Because we know that said rooting interest is capable of providing us with victorious moments like “Weak Fantasy”, songs that justify our allegiance. If I keep going on this particular allegorical road I’ll start questioning my time as a Houston Texans fan, because how crazy is being a fan of a football team? Wishing and hoping through years and decades of futility in hopes of one glorious moment of euphoria? In musical terms, Holopainen has already won a few Super Bowls.

 

 

9.  Year of the Goat – “The Wind” (from the album The Unspeakable)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DwvF8IbVk04&w=560&h=315]

 

These charismatic Swedes released a hell of a fantastic rock n’ roll record this year in the vein of Blue Oyster Cult meets In Solitude, and there was quite the handful of awesome moments that could’ve ended up on this list. I was first drawn to the album thanks to Fenriz playing the seven minute plus “Riders of Vultures” on his pirate SoundCloud radio show, and truthfully that song is so awesome that it could’ve ended up on this list. But its “The Wind” that really shows Year of the Goat for the authentic rock n’ roll band that they are, purposeful emphasis on the roll part, because one of the biggest reasons I grew disinterested in rock music as a genre was that most of its new artists had no idea what a rhythm section in rock could do. I lay the blame at a combination of post-grunge and nu-metal, where the definition of rock was transformed to mean loud/soft dynamics, lazy atonal riffs, basic bass playing, uninspired drumming, and a song that found its hook in a vocalist’s knack for yarling out a melodic phrase or two. Thankfully Year of the Goat have arrived on the scene to show these radio rock idiots that yes, Maroon 5 might actually know what they’re talking about when referencing Mick Jagger and his “moves”. On “The Wind”, the rhythm section grooves, laying down a backbeat n’ rumble you can actually sway or dare I suggest… dance to (or at least move in vague accordance to, I know we’re all headbangers here). Dual guitars spit out riffs like a jam session with Izzy n’ Slash and Billy Duffy of the Cult, while vocalist Thomas Sabbathi shifts between a Ville Valo croon and a more metallic Peter Murphy or Nick Cave for the rockin’ bits. Turns out Gene Simmons was really, really wrong.

 

 

10.  Faith No More – “Motherfucker” (from the album Sol Invictus)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BtznNjvdGO4&w=560&h=315]

 

While I wasn’t over the moon about Faith No More’s long awaited comeback album Sol Invictus, much to my disappointment, I still love its pre-release single “Motherfucker” for being one of the band’s sharpest, daring, and yes —- greatest songs of their career. Its inherently a pop song, with a convergence of hooks in Patton’s repeating vocal motif (“Get the motherfucker on the phone, the phone…”) and his wild, almost out of sync crooning soaring over the top (“Hello motherfucker, my lover / You saw it coming”). But as a pop song, its built out of strange building materials, not your typical Top 40 fluff and production gloss. First there’s Puffy’s nearly martial snare percussion, keeping us on the march throughout the verses, almost a micro-hook in itself. Roddy provides the atmosphere via keyboard arrangements built on stray notes, echoing like some distant grandfather clock, and I’m pretty sure those weird recurring noises that pop up later on are his doing too. Billy Gould’s personality laden bass rumbles all throughout… one of the things I loved about Faith No More’s sound was that it was so bass reliant, Gould plays as if he’s a guitarist, using his bass to convey melodies as opposed to purely working as a time keeper, much like another great bass player in a little band called Iron Maiden. He and guitarist Jon Hudson go nuts towards the end, the latter unwinding a pent up solo that doesn’t exactly flourish out majestically so much as crawl out, complaining out of frustration. Its a song that would’ve sounded at home on Angel Dust or King For A Day, and that’s a small victory in itself.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2014 // Part Two: The Albums

This was an exciting year to be a metal fan, particularly if like me you made it a habit to check out as many new releases from established and up and coming artists as you possibly could. Its not an exaggeration for me to say that I listened to more new metal albums in 2014 than any other year —- easily surpassing even last year’s nutty total. It was an especially prolific year for power metal, with nearly every major band within the subgenre releasing new albums or singles. As far back as February I was speculating on 2014 possibly being a resurgent year for power metal —- so was it? Well, yes and no. There were some disappointments from a few veteran bands, but these were made up for with pleasant surprises from relatively new artists. And of course there were still quite a few extreme metal artists who offered up a handful of great records.

Consider the following ten albums on this list a very agonized over distillation of what I thought were the absolute best of the year. Most year end metal lists go up to twenty five or even fifty entries —- I limit myself to ten to force myself to be critical, selective, and honest with myself about what I enjoyed the most. A shorter list also helps to give weight to the ordering of entries, and you can be sure that the top spot means a great deal. I definitely look at album play counts when narrowing down my nominees as they provide an honest statistic about my listening habits, but I also consider other far more intangible factors as well (such as… you know, artistry and stuff). This is part two of my 2014 Best Of feature, so be sure to check out Part One: The Songs if you missed it. Enough of my incessant prattling! On with the list!

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2014:

 

 

1. Triosphere – The Heart of the Matter:

Its not an uncommon occurrence to discover a great band that I haven’t heard before; its one of the frequent perks of writing a metal blog. It is however extremely rare for that discovery to come in the form of an album that is absolutely flawless and perfect in all aspects. Norway’s Triosphere were a late entry in the 2014 album release calendar, November and December for Europe and the States respectively, a major misstep for AFM Records that has already ensured that it slipped under the radar of many metal writers. I consider myself lucky that I am not among them, because here’s what I learned: This is the best metal album of the year, regardless of subgenre, regardless of your preference for accessibility or extremity, and regardless of any preconceptions you might have about a female fronted metal band.

Yes Triosphere is indeed a female fronted metal band —- a progressive power metal one, led by bassist/vocalist Ida Haukland. But they don’t sound like many other female fronted metal bands, as Haukland’s voice can best be compared to a blending of Ann Wilson and Doro Pesch, with hints of Coverdale’s inflection and Dio’s theatricality. She’s a stylistic rarity in an era when female vocals in metal usually mean light, airy, delicate, and that oft-used adjective, ethereal. Haukland is also unique among male and female vocalists in being a sonically powerful vocalist with both high and low range, all while capably demonstrating a mastery of melody. It would be an oversimplification to say that her tone is only raspy or leathery, because its also smooth, distinct, and enunciative. To say she is the undisputed star of this album would perhaps detract from the clockwork-like, precision machinery of the band as a whole, but certainly without her The Heart of the Matter would not be the special album it is.

Equally as key in the Triosphere lineup is guitarist Marius Silver Bergensen who is the band’s primary songwriter in cooperation with Haukland; he composes the music, she writes the lyrics and creates the vocal melodies. Together they weave a dark, stormy, and feverish take on progressive power metal that is both technically brilliant and emotionally resonant. Bergensen seems to be a smart guy in that his songwriting works around Haukland’s natural talent at creating fully formed vocal melody driven hooks. He’s a tremendous guitarist, and shows it off alongside fellow guitarist Tor Ole Byberg in brief flashes of technicality during riffs and in wild, unrestrained, hard rock inspired soloing. Triosphere weave technicality into the fabric of their guitar melodies throughout, but they know when to turn it up and tone it down, a result of marrying their approach with Kamelot-like simplicity where the melody has to remain preserved. Drummer Ørjan Aare Jørgensen lays down a tremendous performance, spicing up a thrash metal fueled percussive attack with proggy, jazzy fills and accents. There’s virtuosity teeming throughout these songs, but its used as an accent rather than the main attraction, the band subtly hinting that they could do more, if they wanted.

Ultimately its the start to finish array of great songs that steal the show here, and there’s a handful of absolute gems: “Steal Away the Light” is as excellent a pure heavy metal song as you will ever hear, with its Roxette-meets-Dio soaring, triple-segmented chorus built around Haukland’s incredible range. There’s the epic, tension fueled “The Sphere”, where her vocals practically scream heartbreak as she sings “Can you feel me like I feel you / A heartbeat where the sound of my soul shines through”. When I listen to that chorus, I realize that its Haukland’s perfect choices in enunciation that really drive home the powerful emotional response that line manages to conjure, and she does that all over the album and puts on a masterful display of how to make the most of every single line. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite song, “Breathless”, where the band really turns up the Roxette vibe with a fun, punchy, poppy chorus built around clever alliteration. Haukland sings “I know you think / You know the name / Of this game we are playing” with half-second pauses in between each line, giving the chorus a rock n’ roll stutter strut that you don’t normally hear in prog-metal. Its the kind of thing you hear the first time and smile over.

Much of Haukland’s lyrics deal with past and current relationships, or at least the conceptual idea of one where heartbreak is a central theme. It may not sound like very “metal” subject matter, but its refreshing in a strange way, perhaps because such a focused concentration suggests that its inspired by real personal experiences. You can perceive her attention to detail in regards to penning lyrics that while direct and straightforward, are full of depth and purpose. With a few more releases we could see Haukland blossom as a lyricist, possibly reaching Roy Khan levels of diction and imagery (she already has quite a bit in common with her fellow Norwegian). I called this album perfect, and take my word for it, there are no fillers to be found —- and there’s a raw, kinetic energy that flows throughout the album from the very start, every subsequent song picking up where the other left off. Triosphere don’t get bonus points for their uniqueness as a non-operatic female fronted metal band; they made it to number one on my list simply because they created an album that I couldn’t find anything wrong with, an album with nothing to complain about and everything to get excited by. The Heart of the Matter is a beautiful, aggressive, elegantly chaotic masterpiece.

 

 

2. Ghost Brigade – IV – One With the Storm:

Yet another in the waltzin’-into-class-late crew, Finland’s Ghost Brigade slipped this one in relatively late in the 2014 release calendar (must be a Scandinavian thing?). If you recall from a couple years ago, this pack of downtrodden Finns made my 2011 Best Albums list with Until Fear No Longer Defines Us, the album that introduced me to their take on Sentenced/Katatonia inspired melancholic metallic rock. Three years later, they’re finally back with its successor and have managed to land a higher placing on this list with an album that’s more metal and less rock. Its slightly amusing that the further Ghost Brigade have shifted away from what made me enjoy them in the first place has somehow resulted in a better, sharper, more compelling album. Its never the best metric to compare one album to another, but I can honestly say I love One With The Storm far more than I ever did its predecessor.

Not everything has changed, there are still many moments where Manne Ikonen demonstrates his melodic voice with his heavily accented clean singing, but they’re now equaled in play time with his raw, harsh, tortured screaming. He has to fight for space too, because the clearer, crisper production the band has chosen to employ here pushes the instrumentation right up against his vocals, and together they clash back and forth as on the album opener “Wretched Blues”. Its a huge reversal from their previous albums, where everything sat underneath Ikonen’s vocals in a hazy fuzz —- no more. Guitars pour aggression and beautiful, melancholic melodies all over these songs, and they take center stage, often times their musical patterns and figures serving as a song’s refrain such as on the brutal melo-death of “Stones and Pillars”. Some of those guitar figures are heart rending in their ability to touch your emotional nerves, as on the acoustic finger plucked intro to “Elama On Tulta”, where its abruptly followed by a wave of heavy melodicism that wouldn’t sound out of place on Sentenced’s The Cold White Light.

I included the brilliant “Departures” on Part One of this year’s Best Of feature, it being the album’s most accessible slice of metallic rock, but there’s a wealth of melodic vocal treasures to be found elsewhere. A particular favorite comes in the track “The Knife”, where steady mid-paced slabs of gargantuan riffs with suitably throat worn harsh vocals are contrasted with a wide open, cinematic chorus where Ikonen laments in his melodic best “Another year / Another wasted season”. As you can probably tell, much of Ghost Brigade’s lyrical approach deals with your typical Finnish appropriate topics of loneliness, isolation, and general feel-baddery (screw you spell check!), and they just do it oh so well. Take the introspective “Disembodied Voices”, where over a bed of moody, hushed atmospherics and cleanly plucked electric guitar figures Ikonen croons “They said time heals / In a year or so you’ll be alright / Time doesn’t heal / It only makes you forget”. In the hands of a lesser band and vocalist (and I can think of many American radio “rock” bands that could fit the bill) those lyrics would sound contrived and false, but Ghost Brigade understand what kind of soundtrack they need, and Ikonen understands that their delivery needs to be understated, passive even.

My high play count of One With The Storm may have spiraled out of control with its release coming square in these darkening autumnal months, but I have no doubt I’d feel this strongly about its cohesive artistic triumph were it released way back in spring or summer. I think the band has finally stumbled onto a formula they ought to consider sticking to for another release or two. Evening out the guitars with the vocals in the mix has really gone a long way towards giving their sound a surge of power, and its forced Ikonen to balance out his melodic singing voice with his equally riveting (if not superior) melo-death harsh vocals. Ultimately though, it always comes back to the songwriting and Ghost Brigade delivered a handful of gems here, an accomplishment that is even more impressive considering the vast array of diverse tempos and song structures they chose to employ. They outdid themselves, surprised the hell out of me, and somehow managed to release the best metal album out of Finland in 2014.

 

 

3. Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R.:

Until Triosphere came along, Dawn of Destiny laid claim to being the biggest out-of-nowhere surprise of the year. I had never heard of the band before (and apparently, neither did anyone else), but it was the appearance of Jon Oliva as a guest vocalist on the stellar “No Hope For the Healing” that caused my buddy Doctor Metal of The Metal Meltdown Show to play the band on his show one Friday afternoon. It wasn’t just the presence of the Mountain King that grabbed my attention, it was the absolutely fantastic songwriting on display as well. I was convinced and took a chance on the album, and after one pass through I had the kind of smug, self-satisfied, doofus grin that I’m sure we all tend to get after suggesting an unknown restaurant that turns out to be great and having your friends begrudgingly give you the nod of approval. If I wrote my original review of the album with that same grin on my face, I apologize.

Its not a stretch to say that this was my frontrunner to take the top spot on this list for most of the year before some tougher competition came along. That’s because like Triosphere, Dawn of Destiny are a rarity in the world of female fronted metal bands, as their vocalist Jeanette Scherff is neither operatic or light and ethereal, instead her vocals come from a mid-ranged rock style reminiscent of Ann Wilson or Pat Benatar. No need to scroll up to check whether you’re remembering seeing Ann Wilson’s name before, as I used her to describe Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. Both Haukland and Scherff are tremendously gifted vocalists and modern trailblazers of a sort as a budding handful of female singers bucking the metal establishment, but Scherff leans in a smoother, more refined direction (there’s no Doro influences with her). As great as she is, its bassist/co-vocalist/songwriter Jens Faber who is the true star of the album, as his songs are deliciously hooky, ornately arranged slices of dramatic power metal. On F.E.A.R. (if you’re dying to know, its an acronym for “Forgotten, Enslaved, Admired, Released”), Faber has compiled a selection of near perfect power metal songs where everything revolves around major key builds and truly memorable choruses.

Where to start? How about the stormy, tense drama of “End This Nightmare” where Scherff shares lead vocals with Faber, a distinctive and powerful singer in his own right. The chorus here is Meatloaf-meets-metal, the kind of joyously over-the-top chorus that is so skillfully written and deftly performed that it threatens to go off the rails but never does. Then there’s the one two punch of “Finally” and “Prayers”, the best back to back tracklisted tandem you’ll hear all year. The former is an aggressively uptempo vocal duet where both singers deliver unbelievably challenging vocal lines with near perfect enunciative choices and imaginative melodies, while “Prayers” is its 80’s inspired pure-pop cousin —- built on Scherff’s almost staccato delivery of the verse vocal lines. The chorus is a blast, a carefree merging of her vocals with Faber’s in a singalong that ascends like a spiral staircase. And there are so many moments like that, where Faber’s songwriting throws caution to the wind and interweaves vocal lines in unexpectedly delightful fashion, or allows the rather reigned-in, straightforward power metal guitars of Veith Offenbächer to explode in jawdroppingly gorgeous solos.

Should I mention that its a concept album? I’m not so sure its needed as a selling point, because although I’ve followed along with the lyrics and can honestly say that its a cohesive, well-told story —- I don’t think its necessary at all when it comes to simply enjoying F.E.A.R. as a musical experience. I began listening to this album back in March and have kept going back to it throughout the year. Granted there was a slight hiccup, the first minute twelve of the opening track features some rather awful spoken word dialogue that was actually gnawing at my conscience every time I considered placing the album atop this list (its that bad, and here’s to no more terrible spoken word on metal albums in 2015!). I was saved from having to deliberate that choice thanks to Triosphere and Ghost Brigade, but one lousy mistake aside, Dawn of Destiny were serious contenders for the throne.

 

 

4. Blut Aus Nord – Memoria Vetusta III – Saturnian Poetry:

Dense, layered, and nostalgic might be suitable adjectives for Blut Aus Nord’s return to second wave black metal after some time in the desert doing weird, not so great experiments with industrial music. Some quick history: Blut Aus Nord is the musical project of a notoriously reclusive Frenchman under the moniker of Vindsval, who was apparently just 15 when he released the project’s debut Ultima Thulée in 1995. Its sequel released a year later was titled Memoria Vetusta I: Fathers of the Icy Age, and together they were viewed upon as left-field classics emulating the black metal pouring out of Norway at that time. When Vindsval returned in 2001, he did so with a style that owed more to noise and industrial music, and continued in this vein even throughout Memoria Vetutsa II in 2009 and beyond. His unorthodox style won him a lot of praise in this lengthy era, particularly from big-platform publications —- but if you were one of those few that preferred his take on classic 90s black metal, you were out of luck.

So its not an overstatement to say that Memoria Vetutsa III: Saturnian Poetry is the most unexpected album by a veteran artist in 2014, being Vindsval’s return to pure, classicist second wave black metal with zero (ZERO!) industrial elements. The x-factor is that this album is recorded in the pristine, crisp, un-muddied production style that he’s become accustomed to working with in the preceding 777 trilogy, and its like being hit over the head with a frying pan in making you realize that hey, classicist second wave black metal actually sounds better without awful, muted production! This means that Vindsval’s waves of windswept tremolo riffs aren’t buried in the mix, instead they’re the main attraction, and they’re so excellent, so perfectly sculpted that you begin to remember why you loved this style in the first place. And I believe for the first time, Vindsval brings aboard a real drummer in Gionata Potenti (aka Thorns) whose unyielding, punishing attack gives the entire album the feel of a real band at work. The result is a complete about face from the cold, distant icy feel of the industrial era, instead presenting a earthy warmth, like you’re sitting around a mountainside campfire with each listen. This album single-handedly has reignited my interest in black metal as a whole, and made me dust off an Emperor classic or two.

 

 

 5. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls:

Its slightly disturbing that so many metal writers are overlooking that with Redeemer of Souls, Judas Priest have created their best work since 1990’s Painkiller. I want to believe that whats stopping many from realizing this is the pallor cast over by 2008’s tepid Nostradumus, but that would imply that they simply hadn’t bothered to listen to the new album (and that would be poor form for metal writers anywhere, this is Judas Priest we’re talking about). Or is it that in an era where extremity in metal is prized more than traditionalism and given more artistic merit, new music by Priest is considered antiquated or sin of sins, un-hip? I’m not sure what everyone else’s problem is, and granted, I’ve seen Redeemer of Souls pop up on a few other year end lists by websites or publications that aren’t so expressly concerned with demographics and credibility. Kudos to them for realizing what most of the metal world immediately picked up on.

Priest don’t earn their spot on this list simply by virtue of Redeemer being better than its four predecessors, they’re here because of new guitarist Ritchie Faulkner, who stepped out of K.K. Downing’s shadow as more than just a replacement guitarist when he co-wrote this entire album alongside Glenn Tipton and Rob Halford. He turned out to be a veritable fountain of youth, ushering the band back to the very spiritual essence of what made them legends. Priest albums aren’t exercises in intellectual aggrandizing, they’re inherently simple, straight forward affairs built on having a plethora of tight riffs, hummable melodies, and hooky choruses galore. Faulkner brought all these things to the table and in doing so seemed to emphasize that the band didn’t have to out-do itself, or compete with others. The result is an album that is brimming with good to great to masterful songwriting, there are no duds or mediocre tracks on offer here. And its not just the band’s British Steel / Screaming For Vengeance era that is invoked, as there is a distinct Sad Wings of Destiny / Sin After Sin vibe to songs like “Secrets of the Dead” and the echoing balladry of “Beginning of the End”. The production could’ve been a little more compressed, less cleanly modern, and more eighties-sounding —- the opposite of what Blut Aus Nord did in other words. Its the only blemish on an otherwise astounding album.

 

 

6. Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen:

I can completely understand the notion that Ireland’s Primordial is a difficult band to get into, most likely due to the unusual, eerie, scream-sung vocal style of Alan Averill (aka A. A. Nemtheanga). He used to be my stumbling block as well, I liked what the band was doing musically but couldn’t get around him. A long time ago I wrote on this blog that I suspected it was due to my wanting Primordial to be more of a Riverdance-meets-black metal type of affair —- a silly concept in retrospect but a purely reactionary one. For a band tagged “Irish black metal”, Primordial sure weren’t like what I imagined that label to sound like. So here’s my advice to newcomers, step one: Forget any subgenre labels, and lets just call Primordial a metal band from Ireland (one of very few, and a stellar one at that). Step two is harder, but worth the effort: Think of Averill’s vocals as the metal version of Dave King’s from the Irish-American punk band Flogging Molly sung by a hooded necromancer standing atop some moss strewn Irish cliff side overlooking a fog-shrouded valley. Hey, we’re metal fans, we’re supposed to be a receptive and imaginative audience, so get to work.

Your efforts will be rewarded with Where Greater Men Have Fallen, which equals the band’s 2007 seminal classic To The Nameless Dead in songwriting brilliance, and leap frogs it in terms of being their most punishing and aggressive music to date. That matters, because the band was in need of a little diversity in their sonic approach, and it arrives right out of the gate with the title track and its rumbling, earthquaking drums, searingly tremolo-ish riffs, and overall brisk pace. Similarly on “Seed of the Tyrants”, the band goes full on black metal with an intro blast of Averill’s loud proclaimation of “Traitors!”, followed by blistering, full-on blastbeats and tremolo riffs that sound like they were straight out of a Watain record. I’m quite fond of the awesomely titled “Wield Lightning to Split the Sun”, where you hear more of the band’s oft buried folk metal influences come to the surface with an acoustic guitars and drums intro. The most accessible song if you’re looking for a YouTube suggestion is “Ghost of the Charnel House”, which boasts a hook built around clever guitar phrasing, fittingly so… this isn’t a band where vocal melodies are pronounced or relied upon. Most of the time the instrumentation does its own thing and Averill floats over the top, Sluagh-like you might say.

 

 

7. Sabaton – Heroes:

Some would say this is a homer pick, particularly a pair of goofball friends of mine who enjoy trolling my Sabaton fandom with unrestrained glee (its okay, they go to the band’s shows just the same). But Sabaton are deserving candidates to wind up here, this time not just because Joakim Broden continues to make a case for being the most skillful songwriter in power metal today; but because with Heroes the band did something daringly bold. Here was a case of a band that’s made its legion of fans on triumphant anthems depicting war, battles, destruction, and the might of armies and kings. One of the criticisms they’ve faced in the past is that in writing solely about those topics, they pander to an audience and use patriotism as an advertising agent. I think its a bogus critique, because its proponents are suggesting that Broden has to qualify his lyrics with politically neutral counterpoints, as if somehow his audience will misappropriate a song like “Ghost Division” (his audience hasn’t, but the critics have). Sabaton had the concept for Heroes floating around for awhile apparently, but their timing was well chosen —- they simply had to deliver something different, and it came in the form of their first album largely dedicated to examples of non-violent heroism, where humanity triumphed over warfare.

You’ll see examples of this littered throughout the album: a German fighter pilot escorting a crippled American bomber to safety (“No Bullets Fly”); an Australian medic carrying twelve injured American soldiers down a mountain to safety under withering fire (“The Ballad of Bull”); a Polish hero who willingly became a prisoner of Auschwitz in order to gather evidence of war crimes, and escaped to deliver his report (“Inmate 4859”) —- to name a handful. The thematic success doesn’t detract from the fact that Broden still delivered the goods in the songwriting department. There are your supremely catchy, traditionally structured future Sabaton classics such as “Resist and Bite” and “Soldier of 3 Armies”; and there’s some rather gutsy experimentation in the form of 1940s musical pastiche. The new guitarists Chris Rörland and Thobbe Englund were an unproven, unknown quantity in terms of how well they’d be able to create guitar parts to complement Broden’s keyboard written structures, but their work here is an unmitigated success. Riffs are intense and tightly constructed, their melodies shimmer, and their soloing is vivid and flavorful. I keep wondering Sabaton will ever stumble as I’m sure their critics hope they will, but Heroes works as an argument to suggest they won’t.

 

 

8. Grand Magus – Triumph and Power:

This was a recurring listen throughout the year when I wanted something straightforwardly catchy, but more minor key and aggressive than your average power metal release. Sweden’s Grand Magus are not power metal, nor are they folk/viking metal despite their name and imagery —- they’re just metal. Long having abandoned their doomy roots, the band loosely exist in a trad metal palette these days and add in measured amounts of rock n’ roll rattle and shake. Vocalist Janne Christoffersson grabs your attention by virtue of the songs being constructed around his vocal melodies, and with the fact that the quality of his voice is more hard rock baritone than say, air raid siren Bruce Dickinson. The band is also a three piece, so its fairly no-frills, just the meat and potatoes of solid riffs, hummable vocal melodies, and rock-steady percussion.

Album highlight “Steel Versus Steel” is a good gauge of the kind of magic Grand Magus conjure up with a purposeful emphasis on simplicity, the mid-tempo pace set by seemingly swingin’ drums. The chorus is magic, as Christoffersson belts out “And in the end it’s steel versus steel / The final lock and the final key”, the guitars echoing the strutting vocal melody with staccato riffing. It narrowly missed appearing on my Best Songs of 2014 list (too many to list this year). The band gets more adventurous on the title track, where slowly sung verses dramatically build up to a gusher of a chorus, punctuated by a “Hail! Victory!”, its an incredibly fun moment. It gets heavier too, with the punishing “Dominator” which should ring strangely familiar to fans of Glen Cook’s The Black Company series (though I doubt that was on purpose). And I really, really love “The Hammer Will Bite”, not just for its strangely sorrowful sounding intro, but for its monstrously wild and glory-claw inducing chorus where Christoffersson sounds like a Swedish James Hetfield: “The hammer will bite – no other choice than surrender /
Bow to the might – a fiery death from above… Yeaaah!”. One of the few albums I covered this year that can instantly appeal to power and extreme metal fans alike.

 

 

9. Behemoth – The Satanist:

There’s already so much written about this album, and its ended up on so many year end lists that it might seem superfluous to see it yet again, but if you’re one of the few that slept on The Satanist one you really need to get on it. Its not overhyped, and its praise is not exaggerated; but its propensity to thrill you is perhaps entirely dependent on your tolerance for extreme metal. I use that term instead of labeling Behemoth’s sound with more specificity because now more than ever, this is a band that doesn’t fit in anywhere. On The Satanist, the band mixes their take on death metal with a little black metal in the form of a bleaker vocal approach, blast beats, and some quasi-tremolo riffing; finished with a touch of hard rock simplicity to produce a concoction that is brutal, violent, and feverish in its unyielding intensity.

That said, the band has evolved past the need for sheer brutality for brutality’s sake. In its place are atmospheric soundscapes and warm instrumentation, a combination that culminates in this being the most human sounding Behemoth album to date. Its a relief for me, because the tech-y coldness on their past albums was a stumbling block for me in trying to enjoy them —- and not only that, but Nergal simply delivers better songs here. One of his best is the title track, with its blackened, stop-start Metallica-esque riffs and oddly tuneful refrain. Of course there’s the music video famous “Blow Your Trumpets Gabriel”, its guitar patterns reminding me of latter day Enslaved and providing the album’s most hummable riff. My favorite is still “O Father O Satan O Sun!”, whose primary riff and guitar melody are quite indebted to Judas Priest in the best possible way. The multi-tracking of Nergal’s vocals here are an inventive way to make them sound far more otherworldly and terrifying than you’d anticipate, a technique not often seen in extreme metal. I think everyone who’s wanted to hear this album has heard it by now, but power/prog metal fans should let their guard down and give it a few listens, its as ornate and fully arranged as a Blind Guardian album, just using a different palette.

 

 

10. Noble Beast – Noble Beast:

There are a handful of nominees that didn’t make the final cut of this list, the last few I was really deliberating over included Dragonforce’s Maximum Overload and Darkenhold’s Castellum —- both deserving in their own spectacular ways. But I just couldn’t ignore Noble Beast, a relatively unknown American band that came out of nowhere with a near perfect album of polished, thunder-heavy power metal with songwriting so developed and accomplished it ranks in my mind as one of the best debut albums in recent memory. Vocalist Rob Jalonen sounds like a symbiosis of Falconer’s Mathias Blad with his smooth baritone and the sandpaper-roughness of Iron Savior’s Piet Sielck —- with a splash of Hansi Kursch added to account for those throat-ripping screams. And if the European-ness of those names is any hint, then I’ll confirm that yes, Noble Beast owe more to their European heroes than they do to other American power metal bands whose lineage lies in thrash metal (your Pharaohs, your Iced Earths, etc).

It takes a supreme grinch to deny the sheer metal joy of the album opener “Iron Clad Angels”, with its arcing, soaring chorus built on Jalonen’s muscular vocal and some truly frenetic guitar work. The martial stomp of “The Dragon Reborn” with its extenuating choir vocal lines and ultra-melodic guitar twists seem like a lost Blind Guardian track, but there’s more than just reminders of other bands flowing throughout these songs. On “Nothing To Repent”, the band marries thrash metal aggression and riffs with some startlingly prog-rock song structures, a combination that works despite its disparity. There’s the arena-rock thunder and lightning of “Peeling Back the Veil”, with a stellar chorus and great Mathias Jabs/Rudolf Schenker styled guitar work and Maiden-esque twin soloing. And I love the inventiveness of throwing in some acoustic strumming in the verses of “We Burn”, creating some playful folky looseness in a song built on slamming riffage. Jalonen does double duty on guitar alongside a fellow named Matt Hodsdon, and together they dip and weave around each other like a power metal Slash and Izzy —- their interplay might be the most underrated aspect of the album.  More people need to hear this album, and hopefully there will be a second one.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2014 // Part One: The Songs

Sometimes in the mid-December barrage of lists for the best albums of the year, the best songs released this year get ignored and forgotten. Of course its likely that a handful of said songs played a key role in their respective album winding up on a “best albums” list, but what about the really great songs on the not-so-great albums? As with the past few years, I’ve committed to giving songs in both of those categories a chance to get another look via an end of the year retrospective. What makes a song one of my best of the year? It could be anything from simply masterful songwriting, great lyricism, or even a courageous attempt at a stylistic shift or experiment (of course, it still has to be a great song). To force myself to make honest choices, I limit the list to ten, and the order of the list has as much to do with play counts as it does the more intangible qualities I listed above. Now to quote Monty Python to myself: “Get on with it!”

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2014:

 

 

1. Insomnium – “Lose to Night” (from the album Shadows of a Dying Sun)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vw81mcIhDt8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Its safe to say that Insomnium’s Shadows of a Dying Sun was my most anticipated album of 2014, and while it ultimately didn’t live up to the glorious heights of its predecessor One For Sorrow, it was still a very, very good album with some truly spectacular moments. The moment that stuck with me the most was the troubled ballad “Lose to Night”, and I’m going to do something I hardly ever do and quote what I wrote about it in my original review:

The untarnished gem on this album is “Lose to Night”, a song with an achingly beautiful chorus and note-perfect encapsulating verses. This is my most listened to song on an album that I must have spun at least a few dozen times by now, its the track that practically bleeds out the core musical identity of this band. Everything about it is perfect to me, from its tribal-esque intro drum patterns, to the circular guitar melodies within the verses where Sevanen growl-speaks about a litany of regrets, to Friman’s shining clean vocal performance in the chorus with that delicately hook laden vocal melody. I love that during said chorus, subtly buried in the mix is an electric guitar gently echoing Friman’s vocal melody beat for beat, along with Sevanen’s distant growls adding just the right touch of stormy intensity. I love that its a song about the decay of a relationship, but Friman’s prose is sparse and interpretative enough for it to apply to any circumstance —- the narrator could be speaking to his parents, or his sibling, or his past. I love that instead of associating a barren heart with romance, Friman dishes a curve ball by singing “No more fear in me / This heart’s stone inside”, while adding that “Every day must lose to night / Fade and die”. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this here but these strike me as very Finnish in their inherent nature —- slightly gloomy yes, but beautiful sentiments despite their despairing tone.

Insomnium, as well as a few other fellow Finnish metal artists seem to have a grasp on illustrating bleak, inner turmoil better than any other artist within the genre. It must be something about living there that does it, a result of their cultural identity and environment perhaps? I don’t know and I’d bet that they don’t either, but what is amazing to me is how their artistic interpretations can sound so vivid and true to people thousands of miles away in places that are quite unlike Finland (ahem, like Houston, Texas for starters). This is a haunting song, and that’s precisely what it has done to me —- I wouldn’t be able to shake it off if I tried.

 

 

2. Allen/Lande – “Lady of Winter” (from the album The Great Divide)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_OvrGEbMvo?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Something just occured to me a second ago when considering this singular masterpiece on Allen/Lande’s newest album —- maybe I love this song so much because it reminds me of Dio. It should be him singing this song, or at the least this should be a time-worn Dio classic that Jorn Lande decided to cover. Like many, I miss the departed legendary vocalist and metal icon, and maybe its more that I miss his particularly distinctive stylistic choices. On “Lady of Winter” you’ll get a sense of what I mean when you hear Lande croon out the lyrics in the second verse: “Winter lady crystal tears /In the shadow drawing near / Will you show me all your fear?”. It was noted that Lande himself contributed to writing lyrics and vocal melodies for this album, and if he did so on “Lady of Winter” then its no mystery who he was channeling.

Whats more surprising however is that The Great Divide was penned by ex-Stratovarius guitarist Timo Tolkki as opposed to Magnus Karlsson who handled the previous three Allen/Lande albums. I can’t begin to remember the last time I enjoyed a Tolkki penned song, but kudos to him for keeping his extravagant tendencies in check and delivering one of the flat out greatest pure heavy metal songs I’ve heard in a long time. The album was okay, certainly passable, but “Lady of Winter” with its huge, monumentally towering chorus is the sort of gem that will be on my iPod for years to come. Its also the sort of metal song that I’m always afraid everyone will stop making one day, and so thankfully my fears are abated.

 

 

3. Falconer – “At the Jester’s Ball” (from the album Black Moon Rising)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1rMhLO8JFPI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

To understand just how truly masterful Falconer guitarist/songwriter Stephan Weinerhall and vocalist Mathias Blad truly are at their craft, take a listen to the chorus on this deep cut off 2014’s Black Moon Rising. Blad’s effortless clarion vocals skip and shuffle in a most waltz-like manner across Weinerhall’s ballroom imagery, “I am dancing in the waltz, come join in one and all” —- the song’s narrator a self-professed hypocritical, power-hungry misanthrope gleefully reveling in the chaos of corruption. Falconer leaned a little too much on aggression for Black Moon Rising to succeed as a whole, but there were a few moments when Weinerhall dialed back the heaviness to allow some songs to breathe —- the method in which their first four Blad-helmed albums were so excellently written. As on those albums, “At the Jester’s Ball” and “Halls and Chambers” were songs in which the melodies were placed well into the spotlight, and Blad was given ample room to let his voice blossom in its inimitably theatrical manner. This song makes the list not only because it was one of my most played in 2014, but because it gave me hope that Falconer hadn’t completely lost their mojo.

 

 

4. Sabaton – “No Bullets Fly” (from the album Heroes)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG2Snz9jkF8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

This was not only the most musically riveting song on Sabaton’s surprisingly anti-war Heroes, but lyrically told a story that was emotionally bracing in its depiction of human decency bridging the divide between enemies. Its the story of Franz Stigler, an ace German fighter pilot one confirmed kill away from earning a Knights Cross, who chose to escort a crippled American B-17 back to friendly territory. Stigler had pulled level with the damaged aircraft and could actually see the wounded crew and pilot through the shredded airframe —- he was overcome with a wave of humanity that prevented him from carrying out his military imperative to destroy the plane. His presence prevented German batteries from firing upon it and once they were across the North Sea he offered the injured American pilot Charles Brown a salute and turned back. There’s quite a bit of information on the details of the story on the internet, and its worth reading up, but Sabaton’s musical treatment ratchets up the lump in throat quotient by incalculable amounts. The tempo itself emulates the lyrical depiction of two aircraft searing through the sky side by side, and Joakim Broden’s vocals are the perfect narrative device. You’ve gotta love the chorus, with its backing vocal shouted chants of ““Killing Machine!… B-17!”, they’re a strange juxtaposition when paired with Broden’s lead vocal singing ““Honor in the sky!… Flying Home!… Said goodbye to the Cross he deserved!”. The best part about this story? Stigler and Brown met forty-seven years later and became friends.

 

 

5. Edguy – “Alone In Myself” (from Space Police: Defenders of the Crown)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvmraiXxAyU?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

Tucked away in the middle of a pretty good yet admittedly inconsistent Edguy album was this glowing gem, a gospel-touched power ballad about loneliness and isolation written as only Tobias Sammet can. He’s proven throughout his career to be a tremendously gifted songwriter, and he’s one of the few power metal songwriters truly adept at writing emotional, stirring, and affecting ballads. As Edguy has leaned more in a rock direction in the past half a dozen years, he has adapted his once traditionally structured balladry to incorporate looser, more eighties-rock inspired musical elements. Here he expands his repertoire by including an almost 90s R&B meets soulful gospel motif in the song’s masterful chorus, juxtaposed against arena-rock ready verses built on Def Leppard Hysteria era pounding percussion and rhythmic guitar picking.

The mood created is one that has become something of a Sammet trademark by now, a song that’s simultaneously wistfully melancholic while still coming across as hopeful, and dare I say —- even inspirational. I’m a sucker for background vocals as many of you know, I find them to be delicious ear candy when done right and I love the decision here to approach them differently in the chorus. The choral sung “oooohs” in the refrain build up to one of Sammet’s most passionately sung turn of phrases in “No matter how hard I pray, I’m lost in translation”, while the organ-styled keyboards provide the underlying soundtrack to this unlikely church confessional.

 

 

6. Ghost Brigade – “Departures” (from the album IV – One With The Storm)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dph9H340_4c?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

My favorite moment on an incredible album, Ghost Brigade deliver one of the most urgent, passionate songs of the year with “Departures”. It treads similar territory to fellow Finnish bands like Insomnium, namely loss, regret, loneliness and despair —- but it done it in a way that is refreshingly unapologetic about its pop sensibility. This was the most accessible moment on a rather heavy, harsh vocal-fueled album, but it still has plenty of attack in its hook-laden passages. Consider vocalist Manne Ikonen’s performance as he alternates between tortured, guttural screaming vocals to add a touch of intensity to his distinctly plaintive rock inflected clean vocals. I’ve seen some people suggest that Ikonen gets close to yarling with his vocal choices here, but I’m unconvinced. There’s something deeper, darker, and less suggestive of affectation in his tone —- and truthfully I can’t imagine the song with another singer. The verses here are anchored by dirty bass and sharp percussion, and they lay down a framework upon which the band lets loose on the chorus with melancholic guitar figures over heavy, sustained riffs. At times I’m reminded of the kind of Finnish rock now championed by Amorphis, but created and perfected by the long-departed Sentenced. A perfect song for when you’re having a crappy day and need some empathy.

 

 

7. Freedom Call – “Follow Your Heart” (from the album Beyond)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu4TGlKrc1A?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I was seriously thinking of nominating the title track of this album for this list, with its Blind Guardian-esque epic grandeur and gorgeous melody. Yet every time I considered Freedom Call’s surprisingly vibrant new album, I was reminded of this soaring, majestic paean to freewill and weathering the storms of life. This song brims with the kind of bouncy,kinetic energy so often found only in dance laden pop music, fueled by adrenaline surging backing vocal chants and wild Kai Hansen-inspired hard rock meets metal guitars. With Power Quest nothing but a memory at the moment, Freedom Call are perhaps the last men standing in this most marginalized of power metal strains —- that of ultra melodic, major key riddled, positive attitude infused “happy” power metal (its detractors know it by its given name “flower metal”). I apologize in advance, but once again I feel the need to quote myself,  this time regarding Freedom Call and their musical spirit:

“Whenever people accuse power metal bands of having only commercially minded interests, I’ll point out to them the careers of Freedom Call and Power Quest, who have eluded high chart positions, significant sales figures, and media attention —- ironic given their predilection towards writing undeniably catchy, ear wormy music. They’ve gone as long as they have with their too-commercial-its-noncommercial take on power metal for the sheer want of creating the music they want to hear, all while knowing and accepting that they are uncool and very unmarketable —- tell me, what is more metal than that?

 

 

8. Sonata Arctica – “Cloud Factory” (from the album Pariah’s Child)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RO5FPHFI6sI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I have no delusions about this one, I know it will inspire some scrutiny and scoffing but let me explain. It could be argued that the best album released by Sonata Arctica this year was their re-recording of Ecliptica, and if you read my original review of Pariah’s Child you would think I’d feel the same. Time has changed my mind however and I now look upon that album with a little bit of fondness and understanding, largely felt by seeing them performing a few of it’s songs in an October concert here in Houston. It was seeing and hearing those select new songs that made me realize that what I perceived as strange choices in modern Sonata Arctica albums were actually an extension of frontman Tony Kakko’s own particular brand of humor and expression. His stage mannerisms helped to give “Cloud Factory” a sense of directional narration and it made me appreciate a complexity within its lyrics that I hadn’t noticed before.

That isn’t to say that I thought it was a dud beforehand —- its one of the best songs the band has delivered in years with its slightly Japanese sounding melody and wonderful mid-song bridge at the 2:42 mark (which is promptly followed by one of those aforementioned “strange choices”, yet it works in context of the lyrics). I strongly considered placing the major-key fueled, heart-string tugging sappy ballad “Love” on this list, but as brave as that song is in its boldly sung sentiment it didn’t have the musical complexity of “Cloud Factory”. But both songs are perfect amalgams that represent exactly who Kakko is as a songwriter: He’s the Rivers Cuomo of metal, a man so willing to present raw, open nerve endings through his unflinching delivery of lyrics many would consider too heart-on-sleeve, too emotionally naked. Both men are willing to intermix truth and fiction in their songwriting, and its that mask that hides the mirror.

 

 

9. Anathema – “Ariel” (from the album Distant Satellites)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjAHS4pNUY8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

It would be disingenuous of any of us to begin to exclude new Anathema music from year end metal list consideration simply because of their stylistic shift towards modern progressive rock. Yes the vocals may be softer and sweeter, the melodies more gentle and hushed —- but the complexity and thought behind them has roots that extend far back into the band’s Peaceville three doom metal past. It would also just be plain wrong to ignore a song as singularly beautiful as “Ariel”, the highlight of their rather good Distant Satellites album. The band has been on a creative tear since their comeback in 2010, and they’ve seemed to find their milieu in soundscapes like this one, one of delicate piano and strings, and panoramic washes of screaming Porcupine Tree-esque guitars.

The echoing, soaring voices of Lee Douglas and Vincent Cavanagh are powerful enough to get solo turns each, but its when they join together for the song’s emotionally dizzying climax that they transcend genre and labels. Guitarist Daniel Cavanagh turns in the most inspired performance of his career during the song’s outro-solo; a wild, unrestrained moment of passion where its mirroring of the primary melody seems to continue the sentiments that both singers could not express. Anathema play with live emotional ammunition —- there’s nothing faked or phony here, certainly nothing that is subject to the shallowness of self-aware ironic detachment. That they’ve ceased to be a metal band sonically is arguable sure, but in spirit they’re still very much one of us.

 

 

10. Vintersorg – “Rymdens brinnande öar” (from the album Naturbål)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eg-iau4D52I?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

I mentioned in my original review for the latest Vintersorg album that his work isn’t the most accessible or instantly palatable. His albums take time and patience to sit through repeated listens before they begin to reveal themselves to you, and even then you have to be in the right head space to be receptive to it. Sounds daunting, and take it from a decade long disciple of his strange blend of avant-garde, folk-black metal —- it is. But occasionally Vintersorg will surprise even me with a blast of poppy goodness so catchy and memorable that it requires no time at all to enjoy. Case in point was this gem, a hummable duet with an enchanting female vocalist named Frida Eurenius that boasts a refrain so beautiful and breezily effortless that you wonder if Vintersorg could just potentially knock out songs like this all day and specifically chooses NOT to. I could see that happening, he has always been geared towards hyper-progressive ideas within his songwriting, a mad scientist that piles on layers of swirling sound and keyboard washes under furious black metal screams… even his distinctive clean vocals have been sung in Swedish since 2004, making them practically indecipherable for most of us. Take a moment to enjoy this brief respite from his madness then, and to revel in one of the most ear-pleasing choruses of the year.

 

The Look Back: Adrien Begrand on Extremity and Metal + Talking Deafheaven

Thought I’d begin this new year with some intentional distance from my last pair of updates, the much labored over Best of 2013 features, not because there has been a lack of new releases in the interim (quite the opposite actually, I’ll talk about that next time), but mainly due to the information overload I was experiencing in the final days of last year. I’m a nerd for things like best metal of the year listings, features, and analysis and I spent many, many hours pouring over as many of them as possible. It was all too easy to get get worked up over the usual suspects, such as the “big platform” sites/publications (defined by No Clean Singing as “places with large audiences, most of which cover musical genres well beyond metal”) that issued their own best metal of the year lists —- even more so now that Rolling Stone of all magazines had decided to join in the discussion for the first time in their history.

 

Not surprisingly, nearly all of them placed indie darlings Deafheaven on the top of their lists. I’ll talk about them in a little bit, but first I want to direct everyone’s attention to what I believe was the singular most important piece of metal writing issued in 2013, written by the always great Adrien Begrand (Decibel, Terrorizer, MSN). The introduction to his finalized Best of 2013 feature puts into words my exact sentiments about the state of metal today —- my own thoughts on the subject being often muddled and subject to wild mood swings (ask my co-workers). It’s a great piece and I urge everyone to take a moment and read over it (check out his year end list as well). I don’t always agree with his takes —- for example he listed Therion’s Les Fleurs du Mal as one of 2012’s worst metal releases while it was my album of the year, but he almost always gives me something challenging to think about.

 

His overall take in my own crude, ungainly decipher is that innovation within metal has plateaued in terms of musical developments solely derived from internal factors. For example, its difficult to imagine a metal style that is more sonically brutal or extreme than black or death metal in its rawest forms. Adrien argues that the last real innovation in metal from a sonic standpoint was heard around the turn of the millennium with math metal. I think he’s right and I’ve long suspected as much myself, although I’ve also felt rather ambivalent about the whole idea. This is mainly because like most of us, I’m a student of metal history and spend as much energy on revisiting past works as I do on checking out new releases. I’m also a lover/defender of subgenres like power metal, which is essentially a revivalist genre at heart (innovative exceptions do exist however).

 

Like Adrien, I’ve also observed that most of what is being passed off as innovative within metal today and in recent years has been a direct product of infusing a metal style with distinct non-metal influences. So we got the French interpretation of black metal, which began nearly a decade ago with Alcest mixing shoegaze with strains of post-rock and black metal. There was the development of metalcore in America, which merged a palatable form of hardcore with a severe dose of Gothenburg melodic death metal. The apparent trend now is the emergence of noise music as mixing agent with (predominantly) black metal, resulting in reviewers having to graft prefixes onto style descriptors such as post-black metal. Of course nu-metal happened too, a failure of a subgenre in that its influence never extended beyond young bands trying to get signed during the era of its reign. More examples abound, but the point is that in the past twenty years, only electronic music can match the amount of crossover influence that metal has experienced.

 

I’ll say this here clearly so no one mistakes my meaning: All of that is fine. Metal is popular music’s most malleable genre and that ability to bend, flex, and shoot off in an infinite number of directions has been and will forever be metal’s greatest strength.

 

So coming back to Deafheaven then, who with Sunbather can lay claim to having 2013’s most critically lauded album (according to Metacritic), Adrien was a lone voice of dissent amongst the top ranks of metal writers/reviewers with his review of the album for MSN. I was inclined to avoid mentioning the band at all on this blog just because I felt that enough was being written about them in general and that any criticism I mentioned would be met with a degree of “this from the power metal guy?”. The truth is that I think Sunbather is an often brilliant album on a musical level; I love the melodies within “Dream House” and particularly the quiet, dreamy instrumental “Irresistible”. Kerry McCoy is obviously the band’s musical core, using layered guitars both as impressionist paintbrushes and as mechanisms for melodic hooks. The aforementioned songs are two that I’ll find myself coming back for, but not everything is as enchanting, there’s a noticeable dip in the second half of the record where I find the hooks lacking. Still, musically speaking Sunbather is unimpeachable.

 

My main criticism of the album is directed at the atonal, almost tinny vocals of George Clark —- they don’t work for me and I feel that not only do they detract from the great music going on underneath, but that they are simply uninteresting as an instrument in and of itself. I’m not going to assert that Deafheaven would be better suited with Alcest-like dream-pop vocals ala Neige, because that’s seemingly a non-starter of a take, however I will agree with Adrien when he calls into question the need for harsh, extreme vocals with lyrics like “I watched you lay on a towel in grass that exceeded the height of your legs / I gazed into reflective eyes / I cried against an ocean of light”. That awkward dichotomy is an aspect of the album that makes it easy for the band’s detractors to argue that they utilize black metal styled vocals as a bulwark in order to freely name drop Burzum and associate themselves with the mystery of black metal in an unassailable manner.

 

I recently exchanged emails with a fellow metal fan who stated his belief that Deafheaven’s decision to use pink, minimalist cover art was as cynical a marketing ploy as the most grotesque Cannibal Corpse album sleeve designed to shock parents and thrill teenagers (it certainly did the trick to get them noticed by Apple). The argument being that every aspect of Deafheaven is driven by design to bolster their media profile: black metal associations draw attention from metal fans that would have normally ignored the band, while the usage of soft, pastel colored art with a lack of traditional metal window dressing help to entice the indie-music world. I honestly don’t know where I fall on the topic, but I’m surprised that he didn’t mention that maybe it helps that the band members look an awful lot like the reviewers that love them (not a slight by the way, but I imagine that a Brooklyn based writer can identify easier with members of Deafheaven personally than say, Watain or Carpathian Forest).

 

The big takeaway for Adrien regarding Sunbather is that it is quite possibly a line of demarcation between extremity and metal. He raises an interesting question: What defines something as metal, given that the term applies to artists that sound as strikingly different from one another such as Gamma Ray, Morbid Angel, Megadeth, Nightwish, Opeth, and Darkthrone? He answers this question with a statement that is all encompassing in it’s simplicity: “Contrary to what some might assume, extremity is not the most important characteristic of heavy metal. Power is.” Adrien’s essay was controversial for his assertion that Sunbather was not a metal album, but I think he’s onto something that everyone writing about metal should take a moment to consider: The logical natural progression of extreme metal that has merged with outside influences is to allow more space for those influences.

 

Alcest’s new album Shelter comes out this week, courting a lot of discussion due to its complete lack of anything resembling metal. Frontman Neige has gone on record saying the shift away from even minimal black metal elements was completely intentional, a by design move prompted by his lack of interest in the style. No matter how much Deafheaven trumpet Burzum as “the blueprint”, their most obvious influence was the French black metal expansions by Alcest. So where do they go from Sunbather? Short of repeating themselves, I’d expect that the next Deafheaven record will shed more than a few metallic elements. To quote Adrien a final time: “Sunbather is a tremendous example of extremity transcending the metal ethos entirely… And what is becoming apparent as bands like Deafheaven widen their musical breadth is that “extreme music” is the true limitless form of music.” If my prediction comes true, metal sites will still discuss future Deafheaven releases as they are Alcest’s Shelter, much like I still wrote about the recent, unabashedly non-metal releases by once doom-metallers Anathema. Ironic that after all the agitation and debate on Deafheaven’s metal cred, we’ll find ourselves unable to cast them out to the indie wolves. Once you’re in, apparently, you’re in for life.

 

A few years ago I published an article that drew a bit of controversy for questioning the narrowly scoped metal coverage of many big platform websites/publications. It was an admittedly flawed piece in execution, but my motive behind it was to get answers to what I still feel are unanswered questions: Why are those big platform publications’ year end lists comprised primarily of albums that are defined by their non-metal influences? Why are releases by bands of all metal subgenres that embrace traditionalism and revivalism in all aspects (music, artwork, appearance) more often ignored? Why are traditional metal and power metal ignored altogether, despite their being a significant presence in the listening habits of metal fans worldwide? Maybe a new question for the big platformers needs to be added to that list: What is their definition of metal?

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2013 // Part Two: The Albums

And finally, in the thrilling(!) conclusion, I present The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2013, the second and final part of my overall best of the year feature (click here for Part One: The Songs). I listened to more new metal releases this year than any other, something I intended to do after missing the boat on so many excellent albums from the past two years until well after their release dates. The resulting list is as always what I consider to be the ten albums released this year that I enjoyed the most. I only ever do ten because it forces me to be critical, selective, and honest with myself. It also keeps me mindful of my listening habits and preferences throughout the year. After all whats a better gauge for how much you enjoyed an album than taking into account the number of times you’ve actually listened to it? And yeah, I do look at my iTunes stats to spot check myself just for kicks, but I really don’t have to —- I’m proud of what I enjoy and will gladly own up to any of it. Its been another great year for metal —- here’s what I thought made it so:

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2013:

 

 

1. Serenity – War of Ages:

I know what you’re thinking. A prog-power metal album at the number one spot?! Wow, big surprise Pigeon! Fair enough, and your sarcasm is noted. But here’s the thing, my rule for these types of lists is that they have to be founded on the unflinching honesty of the present moment, as well as some incontrovertible truth, and so here’s the deal: This was my most listened to album of 2013—- far, far above other new releases, as well as any older records. War of Ages strikes me right in my musical heart, a record that encompasses the elements of what I love most about music across all genres. It has gorgeous melodies, smart songwriting, complex arrangements, and vocals that ring and soar. As a metal album, there’s heft and crunch provided by Thomas Buchberger’s less-is-more riff barrage, and the light symphonic arrangements that encircle everything else provide a sense of scale, tension, and drama.

 

Power metal has a generally accepted set of definitions, or aesthetic choices that collectively are its auditory makeup —- and ultimately that’s led to a certain amount of stagnation genre-wide over the years. But within the last decade there have emerged a small movement of artists that are trying to sidestep the traps that have developed from a result of time worn stylistic elements being overused to point of cliche. I believe Serenity are one of these select few that are knowingly aware of not only their strengths, but of what they need to do to sidestep cliches —- and its all reflected in their lean, refined approach to songwriting. They’ve had a core of songwriters in guitarist Thomas Buchberger and vocalist Georg Neuhauser that for three albums now have been making a run at equaling the near mythic legacy of Kamelot’s Youngblood/Khan era. But Serenity take chances and allow their newest member, co-vocalist Clementine Delauney to contribute to their songwriting process right away —- particularly in that she pens over half of the lyrics on War of Ages. Serenity have been on the cusp of challenging Kamelot’s claim to having the best lyrics in the genre for awhile now, and I think that with Delauney’s help they’re getting stronger and on a track to clear that hurdle a few albums from now.

 

In my best songs of 2013 list, I pointed out the album opener “Wings of Madness” as a particularly glorious highlight among many on this set, but the band really hits their stride in the second half of the album with a continuous streak of wildly diverse gems. Beginning with the quasi-ballad “Symphony of the Quiet”, where Neuhauser is able to flex his vocal dexterity over a moody piano bed and pronounced strings, almost Queen-like in its grandiose build up. It comes as a sharp contrast when the hard rock of “Tannenberg” kicks in, particularly in it’s strutting chorus where Delauney joins Neuhauser in a lead vocal duet —- her lilting vocals echoing his a split second behind. A lesser band wouldn’t be able to deliver such an upbeat, even fun sounding moment with nearly as much conviction. Ditto for the “Legacy of Tudors”, where the band really lets loose with an unexpected a capella intro, followed by a classically infused chorus where the vocal melodies are seemingly set to a waltz. On the closer, “Royal Pain”, Delauney takes another star turn with her emotionally shimmering delivery in the refrain —- perhaps the best moment by any female vocalist in metal this year.

 

Yes, I have grown up with European/American power metal as a part of my worldview of what metal can sound like. My appreciation for it sits alongside my love for death and black metal (check the rest of this list for proof). No, you don’t need to own a shiny, frilly-sleeved puffy shirt to be a fan of this music, or fall into some cliched stereotype that is so often thrown at those who enjoy power metal (nerd, basement dweller, etc, etc). All you need is an ability to appreciate music that is able to take you away from the often mundane realities of the daily grind, to remove yourself from the sheer staggering volume of irony, sarcasm, and self-awareness that engulfs society. Its the same reason you watch Game of Thrones and can’t explain why you love it so much: Escapism is something we all need and at times don’t realize how little of it we actually get. Serenity is a band made up of individuals that wake up each day and deal with the same amount of tedious crap that we all do; but when they get together and make music, they create a sound that seems like its coming from the pages of a book, of a world that we wish we could touch.

 

 

2. Suidakra – Eternal Defiance:

Germany’s Suidakra have a few important characteristics shared by many truly great bands: They aren’t easily categorized, and they don’t sound like anyone else. They’ve been perfecting a marriage of melo-death and folk metal for a long time now, and while that may not seem particularly distinctive on paper, its the way they’ve interpreted those sounds into something truly original that sets them apart. For starters they have nothing in common with Gothenburg melo-death or its stylistic traditions, and even more importantly they avoid the now cliche and trite “folk” sounds associated with Korpiklaani, Finntroll, Alestorm, and any other band of that ilk. And having seen what that genre turned into… it’s a smart move (before I get hate for that, I just saw Finntroll live the other week, and my concert enthusiasm plummeted when I saw them come out on stage dressed as elves, pointy ears and all).

 

I’d argue that their sound has more in common with fellow countrymen Blind Guardian than anyone else —- powerful and unafraid of being bombastic, as well as willing to indulge in pure balladry without a trace of self consciousness. This album is full of inspired work that exemplifies both traits: Take the militant headbanging stomp of “March of Conquest”, where lead vocalist Arkadius’ grim, harsh delivery contrasts with the clean female singing of Tina Stabel. Its one of the album’s catchiest moments, built around a folk inspired melody that is dressed up in brutal guitar riffs, juxtaposed by a chorus with a bagpipe arrangement that doesn’t overpower everything else. Stabel is a distinctive voice among female metal singers —- as opposed to being lithe and ethereal, her vocals are raspier and filled with what I can only describe as a metal attitude. And what I love in particular about Suidakra’s approach to songwriting is their embrace of diversity, such as the sudden mid-song drop in “Dragon’s Head” into near acoustic territory, replete with military snare drumming, distant orchestration, and possibly even a banjo being plucked!

 

Some may not enjoy the full on balladry of a song like “The Mindsong”, with its near maudlin lyrics about saucy, seductive Queens beckoning Roman rulers to come hither in their dreams but its a solidly crafted tune and I enjoy it for what it is. I have a high ballad tolerance remember? But those who didn’t enjoy that one will surely appreciate the rustic, elegantly understated “Damnatio Memoriae”, where Sebastian Hintz handles clean vocals with some of the best sung lyrics of the year: “Reflecting his desires / To roam the world / To travel from sky to sky / To make his mark in time”. I love that song and I really love the cover of “Mrs. McGrath” they decided to add on to the end of the digipak editions of the album. Yes its the traditional Irish ballad made popular recently by Bruce Springsteen, but Suidakra make it their own with a half acoustic, half metallic approach and unlike Springsteen, they deliver it with the original lyrics. Its almost swashbuckling with its organic instrumentation and an absolutely jaw dropping vocal by Stabel. I wish more metal bands would try their hand at unusual cover song choices like this from outside the instead of treating us to the umpteenth version of some metal classic.

 

 

3. Satyricon – Satyricon:

I’ve been fiddling with the damn ordering of this list on and off for the past couple weeks now, and a short while ago this was a few spots further down, but as I’ve gone through re-listening to all the albums on this list I realized something about Satyricon’s self-titled “comeback” record: This might be the bravest album of 2013. Tagging a record with that kind of adjective is confusing so I’ll explain briefly: Satyricon went away four years ago promising to come back musically renewed, having felt that they had taken the Now, Diabolical/Age of Nero era sound as far as it could go. Well that was already a rather simplistic sound when compared to their earlier, more symphonically infused back catalog, as well as in relation to releases by their fellow popular black metal peers. So the natural way to leap into a new sound Satyricon was to plunge back into the past with all the orchestral dressing of classics like Nemesis Divina, right?

 

Well not according to Satyr, who decided that the way forward into new sonic territory was to examine the structure of black metal itself and poke holes in it. Unlike the recent trend of American bands to copy the French and infuse black metal with shoegaze (or is it really the other way around?), Satyr has created a collection of songs that are built on the concept of addition by subtraction. Gone are the buzzsaw like guitars of the past, the hyper aggressive riffs and vocals, as well as the direct, in-your-face songwriting approach. Satyricon’s new sound is best described as muted, sparse, even spacey. The guitars mostly play open chord sequences, and when the rare riff pops up, its markedly less aggressive sounding than what we’re accustomed to a black metal riff sounding like. These songs are mostly atmospheric in nature, with a sense of awareness regarding the spatial relationships of instruments —- such as little in the way of multi-tracking or layering for example. The theory I summed up in my original review of this album is that “This is the sound of black metal’s moods, tones, and temperament, but purposefully stripped of its surface aggression.” In all honesty I have to be in the right frame of mind to be receptive to this album in full, but when the mood does strike I’m consistently amazed at what the band has accomplished here. Its unlike any album I’ve ever heard, black metal, metal, or anything.

 

 

4. Carcass – Surgical Steel:

You should all be aware of this album by now, and yes its worthy of all the hype and high placement on year end lists. This is one of those rare occasions where a reunion album actually manages to add to a legacy, not only by remaining true to the sounds of the most beloved era of the band’s history, but by delivering song really great songs that tower among Carcass’ best ever. I’m referring specifically to a handful of cuts here, such as “Cadaver Pouch Conveyor System”, “The Master Butcher’s Apron”, “The Granulating Dark Satanic Mills”, and of course the instant fan favorite “Captive Bolt Pistol”. If you haven’t heard the record by now (seriously?), imagine the melodicism of Heartwork with just a slightly crisper, more modern production. I wonder if the scattered naysayers of this record are more upset by that than anything. I had a hard time imagining that Carcass would come back sounding closer to their earlier Symphonies era. Maybe on the next record?

 

Anyway Bill Steer is the star here, flying all over the fretboard, turning in riffs and wild solos as only he can —- his sound is so identifiable its almost like a trademark at this point. Jeff Walker’s vocals don’t miss a step either, he sounds as vicious and snarling as ever… ageless I think I said when I reviewed this album upon release, listening to him alone you’d think this was recorded in the mid-nineties. New drummer Daniel Wilding actually manages to outdo Ken Owen, as crazy as that reads on paper. He’s inventive, has fills aplenty, and plays off Steer’s riffs in unexpected ways. I’d be remiss if I didn’t spend a few sentences gushing about the finest moment on the record, “316L Grade Surgical Steel”, which might be my all-time favorite Carcass song now. which is five minutes of metal perfection. My favorite moment comes towards the song’s end starting at 4:20 where Walker snarls out the catchiest, fiercest passage on the album. What an incredible album. Steel your heart!!!

 

 

5. Falkenbach – Asa:

The biggest surprise of the year for me personally, Falkenbach’s Vratyas Vakyas delivers the best album of his now two decade spanning career. What makes it so is equal parts excellent songwriting and a new emphasis on a clear, crisp, vocals-up-front mix and production. This is the first Falkenbach record that sounds equally as good on my car stereo as it does on headphones, something that couldn’t be said about past records. And when it comes to songs, Vakyas provides an array of styles and tempos, all inventive and unique in their own right. There’s an almost old school sounding black metal track in “Wulfarweijd”, which has a rather catchy riff buried underneath suitably blackened vocals courtesy of longtime Falkenbach screamer Tyrann / Philip Breuer (news to me, I always thought Vakyas did the screams). On other more mid-tempo songs, like “Bluot Fuer Bluot”, and “Bronzen Embrace”, I’m almost getting a Moonsorrow meets Otyg vibe.

 

Then there’s the Ulver-ian half-acoustic, sitting around the fire hymns of “Eweroun”, and ““Mijn Laezt Wourd”, two absolute gems that sail along on the power of Vakyas’ best clean vocal performances to date. “Eweroun” made my best songs of 2013 list, but its companion song could just as easily have been in it’s place there. Both have stirring, majestic, almost spiritual melodies set against a backdrop of warm, fuzzy, hypnotic riffing and delicate acoustic guitar. I love stuff like this and really appreciate it when someone just “gets” how to do it so well. I like that Vakyas has stayed true to his vision and refused to veer off into the cartoonish direction a lot of folk metal has gone into —- he doesn’t need to. Much like Suidakra’s Arkadius, Vakyas is one of folk metal’s pioneers, and his music connects to our ideas and conceptions of nature, the earth, and existence. Its criminal that this record is going to be overlooked by so many.

 

 

6. Orphaned Land – All Is One:

I doubt there is anyone who appreciated Orphaned Land’s All Is One album as much as I did. I wrote at length about my rather complex history with Orphaned Land earlier this year, and long story short I felt grateful to have another chance to really connect with the band that broadened my musical horizons well beyond metal. I’m aware that much of the band’s middle east following is due to their lyrical concepts and message of unification, peace, and brotherhood. I don’t have a strong opinion on that aspect of the band’s work as a distant American —- I think its a good thing in general of course, and I admire a metal band that dares to be purely positive without any trace of self consciousness, but my attraction to Orphaned Land has always been musical first and foremost. This is not a perfect album, (but then they’ve yet to realize one of those), it is however a really great one. I already gushed about the title track and “Brother” in my Best Songs of 2013 feature, so I’ll avoid repeating myself on both of them here. The rest of the album is just as interesting, filled with the kind of musically adventurous Oriental metal that this band has really pioneered.

 

Take the rich, cultural instrumentation and vocals in “Ya Benaye”, there is so much going on here musically that I couldn’t even begin to name all the instruments, I just know that its a beautiful, soulfully laid back moment of respite amidst an album full of drama, tension, and yeah, some fairly metallic riffs. Likewise in the instrumental “Freedom”, where the guitar vs oud interplay of Yossi Sassi and new guy Chen Balbus eventually turns into jaw-droppingly beautiful bouzouki outro (or hell maybe I got those instruments backwards, either way I want more of it). Speaking of guitars, those two guys turn in the best guitar dual guitar performance on any record released this year —- their ability to play off each other and complement one another is simply stunning, and a huge pull of this album’s appeal. Of course Kobi Farhi is his inimitable self here, delivering some fine vocals to some really excellent lyrics. And the decision to shell out for a full choir and string section was worth the additional expense, they lend a fullness to the sound that was lacking on past records. There’s so much to enjoy here, and the good news is that we’re promised a new studio record in a relatively short (for Orphaned Land standards) time frame —- I can’t wait.

 

 

7. Rotting Christ – Kata Ton Daimona Eaytoy:

This is the most bizarre album on this list, I’m not even sure I did it justice in my original review for it earlier in the year. Rotting Christ is a band that I had callously written off many, many years ago for reasons I can’t remember. This album brought me back into the fold as a cemented fan, and its the sheer audacious sense of anything goes, unpredictable blend of what I guess are Greek folk music elements mixed with a unique vision of black metal. Song structures here are uncommonly strange, eschewing traditional verse/chorus structures in favor of Burzum-esque repetition, except that instead of aiming for the hypnotic riff sequencing, Rotting Christ favor a vibrant, shouted vocal chant style approach. There’s a high degree of melodicism going on here as well, guitars deliver ultra-melodic riffs and are often laced over an intense bed of furious percussion, often not matching tempos which creates a very unique effect upon your sensibilities as a listener.

 

Perhaps what makes Rotting Christ’s take on black metal sound so refreshing is their rejection of genre tropes, such as blurring blast beats, tremolo riffs, and aural density. In contrast, the songs on this album have ample space to breath, to sound muscular, and to have sonic identities of their own. Take “Cine iubeşte şi lasă”, where Gypsy-like female vocals usher the song along over slicing guitar riffs and a chanting choir bed. Then there’s the Therion meets Rammestein march of “Iwa Voodoo”, where melodic guitar figures sit between brutal, gutturally chanted male choirs. I wrote in my review of this album that I found it fun to listen to, and I still feel that way. Its one of the catchiest records of the year for metal of all genres, and I can’t tell whether its solely by design or it just tends to turn out that way. Next to Therion, I can’t think of a band that’s come from the ranks of extreme metal that composes music with such interesting song structures. For all it’s accessibility, I have a hard time explaining this album in words —- just go listen to it yourself and you’ll understand why.

 

 

8. In Solitude – Sister:

I imagine that by now you’ve seen this record pop up on many year end metal lists, and have either scoffed or wondered what the big deal is. I got to see these guys alongside Tribulation as openers for Watain a few months ago, and they were an impressive live band, so much so that I was moved enough to check this album out as well as revisit their past two records. I found that Sister has held my attention far more than their previous more straight up retro-metal records could. I do hate using that term to describe anything I’m listening to, but really In Solitude was doing little more than Mercyful Fate worship back then. They must’ve gotten tired of hearing that, because they purposefully distort their sound here with a substantial infusion of goth-rock and post-punk aural aesthetic. Vocalist Pelle Ahman even adopts a looser, more punk-inflected lead vocal delivery to match their new musical approach. If all this strikes you as purposeful affectation to be suspicious of, I suppose I can understand that sentiment but then I’d pose the question of what’s a band that is accused of simply mimicking the past supposed to do other than try to redefine their own sound?

 

All questions of motive and intent aside, In Solitude know how to write some really fantastic songs. A track like “Pallid Hands” hums along on the back of a guitar riff that reminds me of The Cult’s “Rain”, heck even Ahman’s vocals sometimes come off a bit Ian Astbury-ish. I love the inclusion of their cover of an obscure Swedish post-punk band called Cortex, with the rollicking, jaunty “Jesus I Betong” (yes that’s the title). On the propelling title track, Ahman’s vocal delivery rests a half beat behind the guitars, creating the effect of loose, wild rock n’ roll more than anything remotely metal, which is okay seeing as how the song is rather excellent. There are metallic elements mixed in throughout this record, but they’re more textures and retro metal stylistic nods than anything outright heavy in the way of riffs. I can’t help but find myself enjoying it all, though I have to be in the mindset to accept the fact that its far less sonically heavy than even the shiniest of power metal.

 

 

9. October Falls – The Plague of a Coming Age:

This album was a complete surprise, being one of the few promo copies I received and reviewed in the second edition of my Pigeon Post series. I really walked in blind, with no background on the band nor having heard any of their past work. To be honest, I still haven’t checked out the band’s back catalog because I’m so engrossed in this album, a strange blend of melodic death with blackened vocals, under a doomy, atmospheric blanket. Its almost a mix of Katatonia, Agalloch, and early era Opeth, minus a lot of the clean vocals (though there are some). As I was listening to it over these past few months I realized just how much these riffs bring to mind that classic Opeth sound of yore, and how much I’ve missed that. This isn’t to say that October Falls is simply ripping off Akerfeldt and company, but they both seem to tap into a shared vein of beautiful melancholia. When listened to on headphones outdoors in cold weather, this album is as good as hot coffee.

 

This is a full album experience —- one really needs to sit down, pay attention, and listen to this thing from start to finish. Skipping around tracks tends to ruin the atmosphere that is gradually building as the album progresses. But if I’m going to point out highlights you might want to check out, then start with the title track where Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis does guest clean vocals midway through under a wash of well done studio effects that have him sounding distant, almost faded out. Its a great moment, preceded by another stellar track in “Snakes of the Old World”, where gorgeous, swirling guitar melodies convey anguished emotion with as few notes as possible. I’m re-listening to this album as I type this, and every song has some awesome, isolated moment buried in the cocoon of each song —- they’re all worth writing about. Like I said, this album expects your full attention, and with the amount of thought and craft put into it, I think it deserves nothing less.

 

 

10. Tribulation – The Formulas of Death:

I ended up being wrong in my early predictions for this record, which I’ve been listening to regularly since seeing them open for Watain a few months ago. I had figured that it would end up on a lot of the bigger best-of metal lists around the internet —- which it didn’t, turns out the band’s profile is lower than I thought. Secondly, I didn’t see myself having this album on my list at all, not that I didn’t enjoy it, but because it was taking me awhile to come around to acclimating to the band’s penchant for indulging in purely instrumental sections. But Tribulation really has great songwriting in spades here, particularly in the sense that they know and value a catchy riff or three, and are able to utilize them to create mesmerizing, hypnotic songs while using a variety of open chord flourishes as atmospheric soundscapes. Such as “Wanderer in the Outer Darkness” with its epic length and shifting riff sections which build up to unleash pure metal fury with one of the most killer riffs of the year around the 4:34 mark. Another highlight is the uptempo, aggressive “When the Sky is Black With Devils”, where a series of classic sounding riffs usher along the album’s most brutal vocal sections. “Randa” might be the best song here, a wild rocker that has the instrumental vibe of early, pre-Dickinson Maiden. And I’m slowly coming around to some of the aforementioned atmospheric, instrumental sections, which when planned out well add a lot to the creepy, near haunted vibe of the album. Give this one time and patience and it’ll reward you, its at the very least one of the most intriguing releases of the year.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2012!

Before I started The Metal Pigeon, my end of year lists used to be relatively private, only meant for me and anyone else within earshot who’d listen. But I chose to start a blog and with the power of social networking and the viral nature of the internet, my opinions are now very much up for public discussion and dissection. So it didn’t come as a surprise to me that I took a bit of flak for my 2011 end of year list for various reasons. Regardless, I was happy with myself for delivering an honest appraisal of what I listened to and enjoyed most that year.

 

What I’ve learned since however is that a published best of list is often a temporal thing in terms of the albums on it and what number you rank them at. That 2011 list was accurate for the time frame it was published within, but come now to a full year later and I’ve realized that it was severely lacking in its estimation of what I really considered the best albums of that year — simply because I was late to the party on several key releases (Insomnium, Man-Eating Tree, and Theocracy for example). So having said that, I am certain that this 2012 best of list will aggravate just as many people as my 2011 list did, and equally as certain that I’ll miss several releases that I’ll realize should’ve been on it come next December. Oh well.

 

Its a challenge to keep up with new releases if you aren’t on promo lists, and special thanks go to my favorite metal websites and blogs (Angry Metal Guy, the Metal Meltdown Show, and Metal Rules in particular) and the excellence that is Spotify for keeping me musically updated. I’ve expanded this year into two parts, first albums, and then songs (the idea for the latter being that sometimes you’ll find a gem that’s worth talking about on an otherwise average to good album). So settle in, here we go!

 


 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2012:

 

1. Therion – Les Fleurs Du Mal:

When the French critic and poet Charles Baudelaire published his first book of poetry in 1857, he ruffled quite a few scandalized feathers within mainstream French society due to the then taboo themes of sexuality and mortality that permeated his work. Six of the worst offenders were deemed unfit for publication and soon deleted from the next printing of the collection. Over a hundred and fifty years later, a metal band from Sweden who share a not dissimilar esoteric personality with Baudelaire himself find themselves ruffling the feathers (leathers?) of the metal community over a new album that shares its namesake with the poet’s greatest work.

 

While its unlikely that anything off Therion’s latest record, a collection of covers of old French pop songs, will be banned or deleted, the album as a whole has been met with the digital age equivalency, that is a furious panning across the internet. But like the reaction to Baudelaire’s poems, this was merely the initial reaction upon the album’s release, and while these critics were loudly heard, their opinions were not universally shared among all Therion fans or metalheads who were understandably interested in the album’s unusual description. As weeks passed by, something really interesting happened — the subsequent reviews were increasingly more favorable than not, and it seemed that latecomers who wondered if the album could really be as awful an experiment as those first initial reviewers proclaimed it was found themselves more impressed than they thought they’d be.

 

I wrote in my initial review of Les Fleurs Du Mal that Therion fans would have to make do with this “art-project” album because it would apparently be years before a new “regular” Therion album was released. Now I look back at that statement with bafflement and regret, because what Therion has done with this album is redefine the idea behind what metal should, and could sound like. This is an album that has an unexplainable allure, a pull to it that I can’t really explain in any meaningful way. My first listening experience was as expected, surreal and marked with amusement at what I was hearing. But I found some ear-catching melodies in a handful of tracks that I latched on to and marveled at how, French language aside, the whole affair sounded very Therion-esque. This is a band that has developed its own unique musical language across a spectrum of albums throughout their career. And while to the uninitiated certain tendencies and nuances may seem jarring, unexpected, and bizarre even, fans of Therion’s original work revere such things as definable trademarks that set the band apart from well… everyone really. As I kept listening to this album, out of an incessant need to hear it again and again, I began to realize that Therion had achieved something truly great — the convincing interpretation of such a disparate musical genre as classic French pop through their own metal based Therion language — all without losing in translation the sound, style, and spirit of the originals.

 

Therion has a long history of dabbling in covers, and what is remarkable about their impressive list of remade songs on previous albums and EPs has been an innate ability to tear a song apart and rebuild it from the ground up in the classic Therion style. Whether it was with their operatic, cinematic take on the Scorpions “Crying Days”, their epic, yet delicate rendition of what was Accept’s clunky ballad “Sea Winds”, or their powerful re-imagining of ABBA’s lesser known classic “Summer Night City”, Therion’s Christofer Johnsson proved himself to be metal’s most radically creative interpreter of song. Yet on Les Fleurs Du Mal, Johnsson chose instead to preserve the core of the original songs and to retain their essence as much as possible to ensure that they were recognizable — well, in a manner of speaking. The reality is that except for those musically clued-in listeners in France, or erstwhile or current Francophiles, these relatively obscure songs aren’t recognizable to most of us in the English speaking world. We haven’t heard the originals to make comparisons to, and as a result are not filled with predispositions towards these songs, negatively or positively — its really all new to most of us (they are on YouTube however and are worth checking out after the fact).

 

Our unfamiliarity is part of Johnsson’s underlying strategy: These are foreign cover songs in a language that is new even for Therion, French chansons and yé-yé music, but because they are reinterpreted through the right amount of Therion’s musical language we find ourselves enjoying the music of a genre that perhaps we would normally ignore, or even disdain. It all illustrates another motive of Johnsson’s art-project element of this album, to demonstrate that the attributes that separate one style of music from another are often times not so far apart or drastically different. I hear in this album the core things I love about Therion, the only major difference being that the normally dark, epic, and cinematic moods the band usually dabbles in are here replaced by love-lorn melancholy, dramatic longing, and a subtle literate sophistication.  This is a front to back exhilarating, darkly beautiful, and addictive listening experience, and its not only the best album of 2012, but one of the greatest entries in the Therion canon.

 

 

2. Pharaoh – Bury the Light:

This album is so excellent that upon its initial release in early 2012, I had it as my album of the year by a mile. I figured that while there was still a lot of the year left, it was unlikely that anything would be able to top the sheer metal greatness that is Bury the Light. Make no mistake, just because its not number one on my list, doesn’t mean that I feel its value as a listening experience has diminished. These guys are part of the minority population within metal of US power metal bands, but before you let that pigeonholing genre label turn you off, know that this is not power metal in the modern Euro style, instead Pharaoh draw more from old-school American and Euro trad metal influences and their sound at times comes off as more thrash-influenced than anything. For more specifics check out the original review, there are too many details to adequately cover in this short space.

 

Pharaoh has metal’s jack of all trades Chris Black on drums, so its not surprising that a band that features in its ranks the mind behind High Spirits and Dawnbringer also focuses on crafting a reinvigorated approach to an old style. In all the reviews I’ve read for this album the one thing that hasn’t been stressed enough is just how well Pharaoh is able to look to the past for musical inspiration and come up with something fresh, way more so than the scores of fashionably-retro-thrash bands popping up everywhere. Personally what I took away from every listen of Bury the Light was this feeling of what it first felt like when I was being introduced to heavy music — in the sense that I found simple joys in the most meat and potatoes of metal. After so many years of hearing countless bands and albums, its sometimes hard to find excitement in old styles and motifs that you may think are being drawn from a dry well. Pharaoh proves that notion to be wrong, and gives me hope that metal will always be able to look backwards to go forwards — if it needs to.

 

 

 

3. Be’lakor – Of Breath and Bone:

Proving that its not just Finland that is taking over as the country behind the melodic death metal resurgence, Be’lakor hail from Melbourne, Australia, a country more known for barroom AC/DC-ish rock bands than anything extreme metal related. If anyone has a hope in changing that perception, its Be’lakor, and albums like this one will do it. They are clearly influenced by whats going on in Scandinavia, as well as some nods to the original Gothenburg sound as well, but what these guys seem so adept at doing is making you forget about that as you listen. The music here doesn’t invoke old wintry, desolate landscapes — instead it paints abstractly, with musical light and shade that move against each other, often over frenetic rhythms that are set against a modernistic Gothic inspired storyline etched throughout the lyrics.

 

As expected there’s tons of great melody here, and it serves as the songwriting anchor for the band’s sound, as opposed to being merely window dressing. Whats unexpected however is the bizarre nature of the rhythm section and its insistent shifting both in terms of tempo, as well as the tendency to have syncopation both in the guitars and percussion. Something that took me a few listens to catch was the realization that these guys are eschewing the standard verse/chorus format. Songs start in one direction and follow it for awhile before veering off somewhere else without ever returning. It all results in an unsettling sensation, but its kept in check by their ability to craft songs with memorable motifs throughout that are haunting in their eerie, dark beauty.

 

 

 

4. Sabaton – Carolus Rex:

This was a watershed moment for Sabaton, in terms of ambition, sonic production, and of course, quality songwriting. Joakim Brodén IS one of the best songwriters in metal to come about in the last ten years, and so the hooks and memorability quotient is never in doubt when it comes to a new Sabaton release. What was in doubt upon first hearing of the unusual concept behind Carolus Rex was whether or not the band had the ability to deliver a bi-lingual concept/thematic album that wasn’t weighed down by its own lofty aspirations. We should never have wavered in belief, because Brodén not only masterfully crafted a compelling lyrical story of the rise and fall of the Great Swedish Empire and one of its more iconic rulers, Charles XII, but reinvigorated Sabaton’s musical attack to match the grandness of the theme as well. Lush keyboard orchestral arrangements, smartly executed choral vocal sections, and a spot on production job by Peter Tägtgren were all locked into matching the nationalistic epic march of the historical narrative.

 

It was said that the lyrics on the Swedish version were far superior due to the language’s ability to weave in greater nuance, subtlety, and religious overtones; compared to the straightforward historical bent of the English lyrics, and though that may be true for native Swedish speakers, the rest of us hardly noticed. In fact I’d go as far as to say that this album featured some of Brodén’s most deft word play and intelligent diction choices to date. He has a way of crafting lyrics that when set to his stirring, rousing, powerfully anthemic melodies find a way to simultaneously fill you with adrenaline, melancholy, triumph, and exuberance often at the same time. I’m about to see these guys live again for the fourth time in two years (!), and I’m honestly hoping that they play most of this album. Sabaton gets a lot of flak online for being exactly who they are, a poppy, at times simple power metal band that obsesses about World War II and all things war related. To those detractors, here’s something different subject matter wise and this is the band delivering arguably the best shot in their cannon thus far. You owe it to yourself to pay attention to this history lesson.

 

 

 

5. Barren Earth – The Devil’s Resolve:

This came out of nowhere for me personally, I hadn’t even heard of the project until this release, but I owe it to my recent resurgent interest in all things Finnish melo-death for having stumbled onto this brilliant gem of an album. Barren Earth can be called a super group of sorts in Finland, in that they’re two parts Moonsorrow, two parts ex-Amorphis, and one part Swallow the Sun. To the rest of us, they’re just a relatively new band who are part of the resurgent melodic death metal landscape. Like their fellow countrymen, Barren Earth aren’t content to merely recycle old Gothenburg tropes, instead they’ve managed to find their own unique sound by melding into their work what naturally feels comfortable given their members’ other musical experiences. There’s generous portions of folk-metal infusions laden throughout, some slight doom touches, and even some progressive rock influences particularly within the guitar work.

 

In fact, whats most striking about The Devil’s Resolve is its retro-without-sounding-retro 70’s prog-rock style and production, no better example than on the lead-off single “The Rains Begin”, where ELO-ish keyboards anchor the melody against Mikko Kotamäki’s light and airy clean vocals (and whose death vocals here are far more upfront and untouched by production wash than they ever were in Swallow the Sun). I’ll throw this out there, and I think many will agree: This is the kind of album that Opeth should, and possibly could have made with Heritage. If you were one of those people who were intrigued by Akerfeldt’s descriptions of that album before its release, and massively disappointed after listening to it, you will find what you were hoping for in The Devil’s Resolve. Barren Earth seem to remember something that the Opeth founder forgot — its all about quality songwriting, everything else comes after. This is a highly satisfying album.

 

 

 

6. Anathema – Weather Systems:

Before anyone starts to yell about how can I possibly include modern day prog-rock Anathema in any metal-related context I’ll remind them of this: Most metal sites cover new Anathema releases, as once a band has been a part of the metal world, it seems we find it hard to let go of them — and also, I see no difference between Anathema’s recent output and something like Opeth’s Heritage, which found its way on to many sites’ best of 2011 lists (geez thats the second time I’ve mentioned that record). And finally, to be blunt, its the Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2012, not the best metal albums of 2012 (even though they’re generally all metal-related anyway).

 

So yeah Anathema, while I was always lukewarm on these guys’ doom metal past, preferring the more refined Paradise Lost as my English doom cup of tea, I’ve found a newly realized admiration for their post-metal work. I was enamored with much of 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here, though I found the album on the whole to be severely lopsided in favor of the first half. The follow-up here then directly remedies that defect with a front to back album of excellence. Its slightly darker and yes, even at moments heavier than its predecessor as well, yet still presents beautifully written songs that are elegantly arranged, with an ear towards minimalism in all respects — the key to modern day Anathema’s sonic success is a less-is-more approach. This is music that is haunting, elegiac, yet brimming with hopefulness — the entire record seems to be a meditation on mortality, and as such it has a cohesiveness that really captures your attention.

 

The clear standouts here are the twin album openers “Untouchable Pt 1 & 2”, songs you’ll revisit again and again, but not to be overlooked are the gems “The Gathering of the Clouds”, and “The Beginning of the End”. Vocalists Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas share a more balanced split on vocals here, with Douglas even carrying a few songs herself — she is a strength that they’ve realized was under utilized on the last record. A lot has been written about how emotional this music can get, and at times it may even skirt the edges of being a touch maudlin for some listeners, something that I suppose is left up to everyone’s personal tolerance for that kind of stuff. Weather Systems is deserving of a wider audience, and it does seem to be getting some looks from mainstream media, a first for Anathema. Look at it as spiritual music for us metal heads.

 

 

 

7. Kreator – Phantom Antichrist:

This is arguably the best 21st century Kreator album to date. That it took a few releases and perhaps a touch of inspiration from other extreme metal styles to achieve says more about just how difficult it is to successfully reinvent/reinvigorate your sound than it does about any lack of inspiration on Kreator’s part. If there’s a band that knows anything about failed reinventions, its Mille Petrozza and company. Through much of the nineties, the band released record after record of various flavors of misguided quasi-industrial-maybe-doomy-metal. The rebound started with Violent Revolution eleven years ago but like a struggling pro football team trying to rebuild, it takes several incremental successes built over a span of years to get back to championship-caliber form again.

 

With Phantom Antichrist, the band found a refreshing mix with an extra dose of Gothenburg-esque melody in such heart attack inducing tracks as “Death to the World”, “Your Heaven, My Hell”, “Civilisation Collapse”, and of course the truly stellar title track. Of course some Kreator fans will never be happy, much like fans of any metal band who created their classics in the 80s, and as such some have found reason to complain about the band’s increased focus on melodicism. With songs this detrimental to your neck and spine, I can’t understand those complaints…great songwriting trumps everything in my book.

 

 

 

8. Dawnbringer – Into the Lair of the Sun God:

Chris Black is one of metal’s more enigmatic musicians, a low-profile Chicagoan whose involvement in a multitude of projects means he is releasing new albums at a rapid pace, and all of which are actually really, really good. Whereas he shares the creative role in the above listed Pharaoh with Aymar and guitarist Matt Johnsen, Black is the sole creative force behind projects like the Scorpions-style rock of High Spirits, and the now-on-the-radar Dawnbringer (who have apparently existed since 1999!).  If you’re not familiar this is musically speaking a mix of classic metal and NWOBHM traditions, all laid as foundation for Black’s dry, at times almost punk rock-ish deadpan vocals. Its hard to put a finger on why, but somehow none of it sounds purposefully retro, possibly because there is a single-mindedness to the whole enterprise that almost guarantees that irony and self-aware winking isn’t allowed in the Dawnbringer world.

 

Case in point is that Into the Lair of the Sun God is a concept album, in the most direct Mindcrime-ean terms. It is literally from start to finish the tale of a battle-less solitary warrior who is apparently insulted by the sun (sorry… Sun) and decides to seek his revenge — on the Sun. Musically there is a direct line to classic Maiden, Priest, but also 70s era classic hard rock — its not groundbreaking or original in spirit by any means, but thats not the point. Black is nothing if not a traditionalist who cares more about quality songwriting in that old school metal style that he clearly adores. That this album is a Profound Lore release is a credit to the people at that label for being able to see that not all of the bands on their roster need to be Wolves in the Throne Room and Liturgy clones. If you’re noticing a theme developing this year on metal sites and blogs best of lists, with bands that make old school traditions fresh again, its really something that’s been bubbling under for awhile now — its only now just boiling over and grabbing its well deserved share of attention.

 

 

9. Enslaved – RIITIIR:

I had an up and down relationship with this album, loving it immediately upon release and then tiring of it quickly. After putting it away for a few months I came back to it and was surprised at how much more I enjoyed it and was able to see through to the album’s core strengths. Its hard to understand why stuff like that happens, but if I were to guess I’d say that its because this is a good to great at moments album that you really need to be in the mood to listen to. It doesn’t have the straight forward accessibility to override a person’s mood or temperament like Axioma Ethica Odini had, but when you’re in the right frame of mind for it these songs leap out at you. There’s great stuff here, the hypnotic, addictive near drone lull of “Veilburner”, the utterly bizarre title track, and my personal favorite, the otherworldly AIC-meets-Gn’R-meets-Borknagar fusion of “Materal”, where it seems like Slash himself has a terrific guest solo spot.

 

Enslaved find a perfect melding of Axioma punch and the controversial Vertebrae’s soundscapes and simultaneously deliver some of their most memorable hooks to date. Contrary to most reviews I’ve seen of this record online, I don’t really believe that Enslaved is really breaking new ground or anything remotely resembling that type of hyperbole — they have however managed to expand the boundaries of their sound. And while this isn’t their best work by a long shot, its in their top five for me, and I recommend anyone who felt put off by its strangeness at first to give it another shot sometime down the road. There is something to be said within the context of metal about the redeeming value of albums that take awhile to sink in.

 

 

 

10. Alcest – Les Voyages De L’âme:

Well I really have no excuses here. I believe at some point or another I’ve taken a pot shot or two at the worshiping of so-called black metal coming out of France. Alcest are one of, if not THE key figure in that musical movement, and though I don’t believe I’ve ever said anything about them directly, they were certainly among the culprits in my mind. The thing is that this album came out really early this year, and a friend of mine who loves these guys was playing them in his car on the way to some show somewhere, and I found myself enjoying it despite myself. I couldn’t remember what album it was when I got home but I figured that he was playing me the newest one — fast forward eleven months later and when I look at my ITunes play count this album has gotten so many spins that I simply couldn’t ignore the fact that I had quietly been enjoying Les Voyages De L’âme way more than I realized (that title by the way translates in to “The Voyages of the Soul”, not “The Lame Voyages” — you were thinking it).

 

It would serve throughout the year as my soundtrack to writing articles, playing Skyrim, general internet nonsense, and at times in the car as I’d drive to work. Upon thinking about what albums would be on this list, I tried in vain to think of another album that I could have justifiably placed at my ten spot, but the reality is that you can’t lie to yourself. Whereas past Alcest albums failed me and couldn’t keep my attention (might be time for a revisit), this is perhaps the band’s most instantly accessible work to my ears. I won’t go into adjective filled sentences here about what they sound like, you’re not an idiot, you know what this band is about by now just from seeing their name enough. What I will say is that songs like “Autre Temps” and “Faiseurs De Mondes” are undeniable in their beauty and epic majesty. If you like myself had found no truck with Alcest in the past, their latest might be what you were waiting for all along.

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2012:

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JrgrEkhudfo?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

1. Anathema – “Untouchable Pt I/II”: The opening duo from the Weather Systems record is one of many high points on a near flawless album. It may be too light and positive for many metal heads, and it is a complete 180 from Anathema’s Peaceville doom days, but they’ve found their footing here and seem comfortable in it. I know I’m squeezing two songs into one spot here, but both parts are inseparable really — a gorgeous pairing that I’ll never tire of.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6hzsrqyGPs?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

2. The Darkness – “She’s Just a Girl, Eddie”: I love the Darkness, I have no shame in admitting it. I was thrilled when they came back and finally released new music. I believe that I’m in a small minority when I say that I don’t believe that The Darkness are as have-a-laugh and ironic as most people seem to believe. The mix of Def Leppard/Queen/AC/DC rock n’ roll that these Englishmen crank out can’t be done as well as they do it without there existing some genuine love for the stuff. I believed that back when they first came out, and I believe it now. These guys write well-crafted, lyrically deft, and humorous songs that don’t skimp on the hooks. I grew up listening to pop-rock like Leppard, Bon Jovi, and Europe long before I listened to heavy metal, and a  love of straight-up hard rock has never left me. This album cut off their newest, Hotcakes, is an oddly touching paean to their once heart-broken drummer, Eddie, and its a personal highlight off of a fantastic album.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbWYtuSaWL0?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

3. Wisdom – “Heaven and Hell”: This rousing singalong by Hungarian trad/power metallers Wisdom can rightfully claim its title as the owners of the second best song named “Heaven and Hell”. It was the highlight off their most recent album Judas, and it boasted a fairly tasteful music video to boot. The draw here aside from the exceptionally catchy hook is new vocalist Gábor Nagy’s unique blend of prime Ozzy, Dio, and slight Hansi Kursch. This is one of those songs that was tailor made for a field of fist pumping maniacs at Wacken — anyone wanna buy me a plane ticket?

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZMY-YXLa38?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

4. Sabaton – “Carolus Rex”: “I was chosen by heaven/ Say my name when you pray / To the skies — see Carolus rise!” The chorus of the title track of Sabaton’s masterful new album is alone filled with the kind of bombastic, pompous, chest pounding bravado that only heavy metal could deliver (rappers have nothing on Charles XII of Sweden). This song encompasses not only the near genius lunacy of the former ruler of the Swedish Empire, but also the spirit of the new album as a whole. One of their best singles and perhaps the most pounding, adrenaline-inducing song of the year.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uqRF1JS63Mc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

5. Kamelot – “Song for Jolee”: One of two emotional high points on the new Silverthorn album, their first with new vocalist Tommy Karevik, Kamelot adds another spectacular ballad to their repertoire. Many might wonder after all the articles I published about Kamelot’s situation this year, why they eluded the top ten albums list, and really there was just too much in the way of competition. Silverthorn was a good album, and a nice start for the band charting a future without the mighty Roy Khan, but it wasn’t great and had some flaws. This song however hinted that they’re possibly only a few albums away from delivering another great one.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2QrnT–2mI?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

6. Grand Magus – “The Hunt”: There was a lot to love on these Stockholm lads sixth album, in particular this storming title track. This was an easy album to enjoy right out of the gate but also an easy one to over play and tire of. Grand Magus’ major drawback is that their high points are so high that everything else on offer starts to blend in together and sound the same. Still, I keep some choice songs off this album on my Ipod at all times, and its this track that has me singing loudly out of tune the most.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNESu-ChMXY?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

7. Borknagar – “The Earthling”: I love this song, and believe that its more stripped down, metallic attack is the direction that Borknagar should further explore on upcoming releases. It boasts one of the most euphoric and powerful refrains of any Borknagar song to date and in typical Norwegian progressive black metal fashion, it comes towards the end of the song. Its worth the wait, and singer Vintersorg is in prime form using his heavily accented clean vocals to deliver soaring lines that meditate on the relationship between nature and man. Freaking sweet music video too. Nice one guys.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98-yil0olG8?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

8. Pharaoh – “The Year of the Blizzard”: This is the centerpiece of Pharaoh’s awesome Bury the Light album and in a way a perfect microcosm of everything great about this band. While my initial favorite on the record was “The Spider’s Thread” for its unforgettable fade out refrain, “The Year of the Blizzard” features sparse acoustics, blisteringly frenetic near thrash metal, and gorgeous solos (the best one coming at the 5:15 mark, an emotional, fluid, and elegant guitar solo that bites down to the core of what we love about the epicness of metal). Guitarist Matt Johnsen will in all likelihood go unnoticed by most guitar enthusiast magazines and sites, but he’ll get a major shout out from me —- someone get that guy a trophy.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ir_BVxBz5do?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

9. Orden Ogan – “The Things We Believe In”: These German power metallers clearly take major inspiration from the mighty Blind Guardian, which is no bad thing of course, but doesn’t net the points for originality. It doesn’t matter however when you have songs as straight up fun as this one. Their new album, To The End, is chalk full of anthemic choruses and surprisingly some hyper-intense Immortal-like riffing. But its a bit of a mixed bag overall, with some filler here and there, and one ballad that has some seriously cringe worthy lyrics (and I’m a guy who tolerates a lot in that department) despite its good melody. But generally speaking, this is the kind of band you listen to for some good time, singalong, drinking metal. We’ll leave the serious German power metal to the original bards.

 

 

 

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IXhyzGc7_pc?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

10. Asphyx – “Deathhammer”: These guys narrowly missed my top ten albums list this year with their release of the same name, a convincingly brutal assault on the ear drums in that classic Entombed style. This was the best pure death metal album of the year, even topping Grave with their solid Endless Procession of Souls, and it was this song in particular that served as their consideration for nomination. Asphyx are grim traditionalists in every aspect, even down to details such as an insistence on a mud n’ blood production. These songs wouldn’t work half as well if they were recorded with the pristine precision of a band like Nile. Darkthrone’s Dutch death metal cousins then.

 

Last word on 2011: Things I missed

In the past weeks since my year end list was posted, I’ve been enjoying a number of albums released in 2011 that I either overlooked, under appreciated at the time of release, or simply didn’t realize were out until recently. Although this tends to happen every year, I’m no less agitated by my oversights — it seems to suggest a failure on my part to be with it, to have the pulse of what is really great in metal at the moment. But on the other hand, I can only listen to so much at once, especially when I find myself drawn to repeated listenings of a few albums in a particular period of time. To counter this deficiency I listen to a few metal radio streams and select favorite metal radio shows, as well as sifting through the numerous best of 2011 lists to alert myself to music that may have missed my radar. Sometimes just seeing an album that I had ignored earlier reappear in a year end list will get me to give it another listen. Here’s the best of what I missed:

 

 

Moonsorrow – Varjoina Kuljemme Kuolleiden Maassa:

Credit for this one goes to the Angry Metal Guy and his Top 10(ish) of 2011 list. I was vaguely aware that Moonsorrow had released a new album through the half-remembered mutterings of a friend, but I was not moved to check it out. Its not that I didn’t enjoy Moonsorrow, my first real Moonsorrow experience was seeing them live a few years back and I thoroughly enjoyed their show, thought they sounded great and proceeded to pick up a copy of their then new EP Tulimyrsky at the merch booth. What I loved in the live setting was not translating through on the recording, nor was anything from their 2007 album Viides Luku – Hävitetty. I suspect now it must’ve been a case of being in the wrong mindset — I wasn’t in the mood for ten to thirty minute long songs from a band that I (erroneously) perceived as supposedly being a blacker and bleaker Ensiferum. However, when AMG places an album at number one on his year end list, I tend to stow away any misgivings I may have had about a band, shut up and check out the album. Am I glad I did. I love this record, from start to finish, love it. I won’t do any personal year end list revisions, but had I heard this album before I contemplated my 2011 favorites I’d have no doubt that it would rank somewhere in the top ten. The standout track for me that had me hitting repeat over and over again was “Huuto”, whose main melody is introduced at the onset through chiming acoustic guitars. I’ll avoid an album review here (instead referring you to AMG’s review ), but instead will suggest to someone unfamiliar with Moonsorrow that this album is the perfect point of entry into their back catalog. The songs are trimmed down in length a bit from their past few releases, and while they are more immediate, they do not lack in songwriting quality or depth in the arrangements. Its an album with passionate blackened vocals, dark folk touched melodies, cinematic keyboards that drive the melodies, and overall epic scope. Enjoying this album has opened up the band’s past few releases for me, including the two mentioned above, and I’ve been enjoying those as well. Its a recurrence of what has become a theme for me lately: rediscovering bands I’d previously been unable to get into. I think that as a listener, your mindset and the timing of when you first listen to a band might have something to do with it, but more important than that is having the right point of entry into a band’s recorded output.

 

 

Primordial – Redemption at the Puritan’s Hand:

Well I’m gonna have a hard time explaining this one. As with Moonsorrow except on a slightly more severe level, I could never get into Primordial despite all my best efforts through numerous listenings of random tracks on youtube, sampler cds, etc. over the years. I recall always enjoying the musicianship and arrangements, but the vocals were my stopping point. I just could not get into them. A few weeks ago, I took a listen to a few tracks from their 2011 release and found myself running into the same problem — that is until I put Alan Averill’s vocals into context. I started thinking about how he reminded me of Flogging Molly’s Dave King, who I’ve been a longtime fan of. I know it sounds stupid, but it worked. All of a sudden Averill’s vocals weren’t a problem, in fact, if anything they became more of a draw to me than the music because it reinforced to me that hey, this is an Irish black(ish) metal band, a true rarity. His vocal approach is unique, and in moments of clarity he sounds distinctly Irish in accent. I don’t know if my earlier attempts at enjoying this band’s music was just scuppered due to misplaced expectations or perhaps because I subconsciously wanted them to sound like Riverdance-meets-black metal. This is a good record, but I’ll have to say that I now prefer its predecessor To the Nameless Dead overall. While Redemption is not quite the point of entry record that Moonsorrow’s new one was, its standout track “Lain with the Wolf” is by far the band’s best song – one to You Tube if you’re at all remotely curious about this band. If its steady, churning build doesn’t move you, check your pulse.

 

 

Hammers of Misfortune – 17th Street:

Credit where credit’s due, this was an album and band that I was introduced to through Lars Gotrich’s NPR Best Metal of 2011 list. Yes, despite my reservations about his and other similar year end lists, I did go through and take a listen to everything on it and this fantastic album by (the Metal Pigeon’s childhood hometown) San Francisco’s Hammers of Misfortune was the clear standout, an album that grabbed my interest because it touches upon the cornerstones of what I love in music in general. Namely, great songwriting, passionate vocals, and inventive arrangements. The hook-in was the track called “The Grain”, a song built around a soaring chorus that is immediately followed by an awesomely crunchy outro. Its simply one of the best songs I’ve heard all year. While the album doesn’t provide any other tracks that live up to its incredible standard, it does offer the widest variety of styles and approaches that I’ve heard on an album recently next to Nightwish’s Imaginaerum. The influences are pronounced; at times Thin Lizzy, Queen, and old Metallica blended through a prog filter into something that really does remind me of the Bay Area. The end result is a hard to categorize sound that is also difficult to describe in terms of relating them to contemporary bands, but that is the likely triumph here. Its therefore a bit pointless to try to talk someone into liking this record, just give it a chance and see if you like anything about it. You’ll need to give it multiple listens before it sets in as a whole album, and I can understand how some people will be unable to see the appeal. Its by far more rooted in a classic metal/hard rock approach than anything modern-ish, yet sounds more modern than most stuff out there today (if that holds any importance to you). A uniquely satisfying album.

 

 

Vintersorg – Jordpuls:

I have no excuse as to why I slept on this in 2011. This is an incredibly enjoyable, and fun(!) to listen to album. I actually obtained it upon release, gave it a cursory listen and never went back to it again. This is strange behavior for me because I actually am quite the Vintersorg fan, and above all his projects his solo albums are the treats I crave the most. Looking back now, I suspect that perhaps my initial indifference to Jordpuls was silently informed by my disappointment with the last Borknagar release (in case you didn’t know, Andreas Hedlund aka Vintersorg handles their vocals). I rather enjoyed Vintersorg’s 2007 album, Solens Rötter  (“Roots of the Sun”), as it marked a return to Swedish lyrics and his Scandinavian folk influenced roots. This was a breath of fresh air after the utter proggy weirdness of the two albums that preceded it (good albums both, but bonkers weird). He sounded comfortable and at ease once again, the songs flowed better, and the shift towards simpler arrangements allowed his knack for excellent melodies to shine through again. It seems that with Jordpuls (“Pulse of the Earth”), he is building upon the foundations laid down with Solens Rötter and now has a better understanding of how to weave in the prog tendencies he loves in a more natural sounding way. I suppose this only makes sense if you understand what a jarring transition it was to listen to 1999’s Odenmarken’s Son, only to be greeted with the abrupt changes presented in its successors, 2000’s Cosmic Genesis, and 2002’s Visions From the Spiral Generator. Here’s hoping the upcoming Borknagar album can impress me just as much.

 

 

High Spirits – Another Night:

Thanks to Joseph Schafer from Invisible Oranges for this recommendation. What an awesome record. It reminds me of the Scorpions (yes goddammit that’s a great thing) mixed with a cornucopia of 70s and 80s guitar rock. Hell even the cover, with its  juxtaposition of classic looking band and album logos against a black framed scene of the Chicago cityscape at night, depicts the very scene I imagine when I hear the German legends’ “Big City Nights”. Apparently this is a one man project at its core, by a fellow named Chris Black who I’m led to believe handles all the instrumentation as well as vocal duties(?). Correct me if I’m wrong on that, but regardless, these are great songs played with a hard rock/metal spirit that seems to elude many of the new bands out there who are actively attempting to emulate the past. After reading Schafer’s write up of on Another Night and his earlier interview with Chris Black, I get the impression that this project exists for the simple reason that no one is making new music that sounds like this anymore. That’s a good enough reason as any to make a record that is more rockin’ (spelled as intended) than anything else I’ve heard in donkeys years. Good thing too, the mighty Scorpions are retiring soon, so someone needed to step up and continue to offer advice on what to do “when the daylight is falling down into the night”. You Tube “Full Power”, “Another Night in the City”, and “Do You Remember” — they’ll sell you on the record.

NPR and Pitchfork: Putting their Best Metal of 2011 lists in perspective

The generous view on year-end/best-of lists of bloggers or websites is that they are often an exercise in an earnest, optimistic type of narcissism. I’ve done one myself, so I’m not guiltless in that aspect — but I’ve begun to realize that most of the lists currently being published are also exercises in varying, and scalable degrees of exclusionism. I say this because in the past two years major non-metal/indie oriented media outlets have taken it upon themselves to declare to their reading audiences what is the Best Metal of the Year. I’m referring to websites such as NPR, Pitchfork Media, Spin, PopMatters, Stereogum, Noisecreep, Frontier Psychiatrist, etc (just do a google search for “Best Metal of 2011” where you’ll see a good portion of these on the first page of search results). There are countless other minor non-metal oriented blogs and sites that have their own list up as well, and they all pretty much loosely mirror one of the examples posted above.

 

This is a curiously new phenomenon: ten, seven, even six or five years ago you wouldn’t find non-metal/indie media daring to touch the very idea of the “best metal” released in those years. The cynic in me wants to ask, “Did the hipsters get tired of all the garage-rock bands ironically limping around Brooklyn?” That is mean spirited I know, but part of me does wonder, how long will this new found interest last? First let me offer this: I am not attempting to argue that these sites have no business publishing best of metal year end lists, nor am I attempting to critically analyze their selections. Each of the writers of these lists have their own tastes, preferences, and the right to promote them…but after mulling these lists over for a few weeks and listening to most of the albums on them, one thing has become very clear to me: The most popular of these lists are created by a handful of very prolific writers/bloggers, and the rest stem from the templates laid out by said writers. In particular, the highly read and discussed lists from NPR’s Lars Gotrich and Pitchfork/Stereogum’s Brandon Stosuy are parroted throughout the blogosphere. In deserving respect to these two writers, they both offer their opinions with interesting takes and lucid arguments. I enjoy reading their stuff, and dislike having to single them out — however due to their popularity, I feel they are liable to be held to a higher standard.

 

Without delving too deeply into Gotrich and Stosuy’s lists, the most obviously striking things about them both is that they tend to lean heavily on the new crop of post-black metal bands. There are occasional death metal albums sprinkled throughout, the odd doom record, and a good bit of math-metal (I hate that label but its what everyone uses). Okay fine, I actually like a few of their selections as well, but here’s a question: Aren’t we missing something in terms of various other styles of metal? You’ll notice that traditional metal and power metal are noticeably absent from these lists. Gotrich’s 2010 list was even more narrowed down to include ambient and noise records alongside new post-black metal releases. I have no problem with Agalloch’s excellent Marrow of the Spirit taking the number one spot, but where on the list were the then new and stunningly great albums by Blind Guardian and Accept? These were widely acknowledged as some of the most brilliant work by either band, and both came as surprises completely out of the blue. In his 2011 list, Gotrich misses out on the masterful Iconoclast by Symphony X, a ferocious album that has won them more believers than anything else in their catalog. How about the woefully underrated Faroese trad-meets-folk metallers Týr and their fantastic new record The Lay Of Thrym? I could go on and on, and apply the same misses to Stosuy’s lists for 2010 and 2011. (And while we’re on the subject of black metal, how do both of these guys miss Enslaved’s Axioma Ethica Odini as well as the 2011’s excellent Taake release Noregs Vaapen, and Burzum’s defiant, shifting Fallen?)

 

 

It should be all too clear by now that Gotrich and Stosuy do not like traditional or power metal at all. To such a degree that they will willingly ignore popular, widely lauded albums that fall into those styles. To each his own right? Yes. But here’s my problem: these are two very influential writers. Their opinions as mentioned before are parroted around the web, and frankly, that’s where a lot of this type of discussion takes place. What concerns me is that these lists are being trotted out for readers and listeners not already familiar with metal in general. What Gotrich and Stosuy present to these types of audiences is a mere sliver of the many styles of metal that are actually available out there. An NPR listener might actually be capable of being interested in metal that is delivered with a clean, melodic vocalist, or be able to enjoy a record that isn’t washed out in synths and shoegaze influences (cheap shot I know). There are plenty of bands who put out quality releases that this hypothetical person could enjoy, but they might never know about them.

 

It may only be semantics, but I’d feel a little less agitated about Gotrich’s list if it wasn’t simply titled “The Best Metal of 2011”. What should it be called? I don’t know exactly, perhaps throw in the word “extreme”, as in “The Best Extreme Metal of 2011”? That would at least be a little more adequately narrow, or at least less inaccurate. Perhaps I come across here as being far too judgmental, but this is what blogs are built for right? Someone could exasperatedly chime in at this point to say “Look, its just a goddamned list, get over it”. Well I also see it for being more than what a casual reader may take it as — and that is a concerted effort to make metal appealing to the indie and culturally hip audiences of NPR and Pitchfork. There is a trend developing within the ranks of American based non-metal media, as well as some metal based media outlets (I’m looking at you Decibel) to intellectualize a certain set of subgenres and plant their flags upon it as if to signal to hipsters everywhere, its okay to listen to this particular brand of metal. Any metal not within the confines of these designated genres is to be considered dumb, sophmoric, and dated music for neanderthals who wank about guitar solos, drink beer, and act like idiots at metal festivals like Wacken. Am I taking this a bit too far? Maybe… but deep down I suspect I’m right about the motivations here. I’d love for Gotrich and Stosuy to come on here to refute me and make me eat my words somehow. They’ll be sent links to this.

 

My accusations of blatant exclusionism against these two writers in particular is supported by the fact that there is a host of metal oriented websites and blogs, many of whom have been in operation for well over a decade, that offer completely different takes on what is the best metal of 2011. The fifteen year old web zine Metal Rules placed the aforementioned Accept and Blind Guardian albums at the top two positions of their 2010 list, respectively, and they have an even more varied and cross-subgenre based list for 2011. I may not find myself agreeing with many of the choices on their list, but I do appreciate the fact that it is coming from a website that reviews any and all subgenres within metal. Check out their reviews section and you’ll find that many of the bands on both the NPR and Pitchfork lists are reviewed in depth. There many other metal oriented sites out there that share a similar open minded viewpoint, such as the Angry Metal Guy, one of the best places to get informed opinions about metal across the board. Check out the tireless efforts of Stone at Metal Odyssey, the always unique takes of Dan DeLucie at Heavy Metal Power, and the often hilarious yet always informative work at Metal Sucks. Two Cleveland metal legends, Officer Metal and Doctor Metal, offer experienced, informed opinions about the more melodic side of metal through their excellent college radio shows the Metal Command, and the Metal Meltdown, respectively. There are so many more, too many to list actually, that offer wildly different takes that are often informed from a more centrist metalhead perspective. What is unfortunate is that none of them are as popular as NPR and Pitchfork.

 

It may sound as if I’m angry about all this stuff, well, not really. Disturbed yes, annoyed even more so because so many of the bands that I’ve enjoyed over the years fall into those categories that would not fit in with idea of metal that the non-metal oriented media wants to talk about. It affects me personally when these bands I love decide to pass on touring the United States due to lack of perceived popularity in our country. They can’t get decent press, record sales never grow adequately, and they decide to do the smart thing and stick to Europe, South America, and Japan for financial reasons. Some of the gutsier bands try their hand at building a niche fan base in the States, such as the Swedish power metallers Sabaton, who by this coming April will have passed through my city of Houston three times in one year(!). I’ve heard them speak with my own ears about the uncertainties of touring in the United States — they admit, they aren’t sure if they can pull it off half the time. A great, truly amazing band both live and on record like Sabaton gets no American press except from the depths of the metal underground, while hosts of tastemaker approved bands get viral online attention (a good many of which are studio projects, or bands that tour only in limited fashion). Something is wrong with this scenario, and its disappointing that nothing will change.

 

Two Fridays ago I enjoyed listening to the long running metal radio show Metal on Metal based out of Cleveland by another one of that city’s metal legends, Bill Peters. His end of the year list was created by requesting listeners’ votes for their top three choices of 2011. The list that was compiled was interesting to behold; over one thousand listeners contributed and the final two were neck and neck. It ultimately finished with Anvil’s 2011 release Juggernaut of Justice getting the top spot over Anthrax’s Worship Music. Not Blut Aus Nord, or Cormorant, nor (dear me) Liturgy — but Anvil and Anthrax. When we get lost in the myriad depths of blog comment fields and the hidden realms of web forum discussions, we often shutter ourselves away from the reality of what is actually happening in the world. This applies to metal, and to its appreciation as a form of topical discussion. As seen here in Metal on Metal’s listener compiled list, what large samples of metal fans are actually listening to is far removed from what sites like NPR and Pitchfork prescribe. With all due respect to the bodies of work and the talent of the artists on those lists, I can’t imagine the majority of them taking to the stage at the metal community’s international proving ground of Wacken Open Air. There really is a silent majority in metal. The audience for this type of music is massive, but the portion you see online is a small, fragmented mosaic. Tens of thousands of people bought the new Megadeth record in its first week of release — they did not look to the web for a recommendation.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2011!

 

 

 

It was always going to be hard for 2011 to match the unprecedented amount of great and often excellent albums released in 2010, which was a landmark year for metal in general. Across all the sub genres, the metal world flexed its muscles as if to show that ten years after the Iron Maiden reunion that sparked the metal resurgence across the globe, the flag was still flying high, commercially and creatively. But what 2011 lacked in sheer numbers of releases, it more than made up for in just how many potential candidates there were for the number one spot in this list. In my experience, most years have ended with a clear standout album, one that so easily towered above the rest in my mind that the list seemed lopsided. But not this year, because each one of the albums in the top five of this year’s list could have legitimately claimed the number one spot. That’s saying something about just how fantastic the album in that spot is, and now to get right to the point, The Metal Pigeon’s Album of the Year belongs to:

 

 

1. Symphony X – Iconoclast:

I wrote about the impact that this album had on me upon my first listen in an earlier blog piece, and well over half a year after initially hearing this record it still manages to get me to shake my head in disbelief at how much I really love this album. Now is not the time to be reserved about praise, this album is an absolute masterpiece, start to finish, and in all ways as close to a perfect album as you can get. This is a rarity for me, as I usually can find something to critique even in most of my albums of the year; a filler song here or there, a pointless intro track, a vocalization that sounds off, lame artwork, etc, etc. In Iconoclast, every note belongs where it is found, the transitions between the crunchy, gritty gut checking verses and soaring-so-high choruses aren’t forced – if a bridge is needed, you often find it becomes one of the defining features of the song. Some of the best moments in these songs are the little things, the one time transitions or outros that follow spectacular guitar solos or perhaps the third play through of the chorus – these are the musical gems that once discovered make you all too happy to sit through a six-minute song in order to hear that singular transcendent moment at the four-minute mark.

 

Russell Allen’s vocals are spectacular, he has the ability to quickly shift from a startlingly aggressive gritty delivery to a smooth, soaring, powerful vocal that often carries the rest of the band’s complex arrangements into the territory of raw human emotion. Sadness, melancholy, elation, and euphoria — a great progressive/power metal vocalist should be able to flex his instrument to convey them at the drop of a hat, regardless of the timbre of their voice. This is epic music and it requires a vocalist that goes for it, leave the irony and smirking at the door please. And regarding guitarist Michael Romeo, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a shredder who can so effortlessly spit out guitar riffs that sound so sharp and razor perfect that they threaten to slice up your face while listening, since the classic era of Megadeth via Dave Mustaine. Rapid flurries of notes are timed well, spaced out evenly, and countered by his innate sense of melodicism that he interjects not only in beautifully composed, epic guitar solos and passages, but also within the song structures as well. Throughout the album, he flares and flashes here and there before unleashing his technical abilities in a jaw dropping way, yet always knows when to exercise restraint and allow the rhythm section to carry the weight of the song.  I’ll repeat my earlier claim, there isn’t a note wrong on this record, and it manages to top its predecessor, 2007’s Paradise Lost, which was already a spectacular album. If you are any kind of metal fan, you owe it to yourself to give this a few listens at the very least.

Album highlights: “The End of Innocence”, “Children of a Faceless God”, “When All is Lost” (the guitar solo at 6:27 is worth the price of admission)

 

 

 

2. Nightwish – Imaginaerum:

Most of the albums on this list were released many months ago, Nightwish’s Imaginaerum was released on November 30th. In just a few weeks it has managed to occupy most of my listening time for this entire month, as well as streak up to the second highest spot on this list. In the UK, Metal Hammer has awarded it with its own prestigious Album of the Year award, and no wonder: Its addictive, in a way that no Nightwish album has ever come close, perhaps due to the fact that its so intriguing. No other album in this band’s history is as schizophrenic, jarringly abrasive, prone to sudden mood swings and well, just flat out bonkers. At the center of this madness is the steadying hand and guiding vision of keyboardist and main songwriter Tuomas Holopainen. And he somehow manages to keep all the zaniness in check through his ever reliable abilities to craft oh-so-catchy tunes and heart stopping orchestral arrangements. The shining star however, is not-so-new anymore Nightwish vocalist, Anette Olzon, who gives the performance of her career with a barrage of shifting styles and vocalizations. On “Slow, Love, Slow” she’s a jazz chanteuse who conducts the band with a hint of slyness in her voice, while the subtle shift to the chorus shows her ability to bend emotional inflection into her delivery in a way she never did on past ballads like “Eva”. She duels with bassist and co-vocalist Marco Hietala’s bizarre, gruff, mental patient-like shouting vocals on the epic “Ghost River” by being the bright light of innocence to his incredibly dark, haunting performance. Of note on this track is the way that the children’s voice of the Young Musicians London choir eerily backs up Hietala in what has to be one of the strangest duets in music history. It works.

 

It all somehow manages to work, even jazz lounge Nightwish. On the much talked about “Scaretale”, Olzon disappears into the character of a loopy performer in a deranged, Tim Burton-esque circus, and her vocal darts quickly in and out of rapid phrases and dramatic musical shifts. Her ABBA-esque pure pop vocal background is given center stage to crest to euphoric heights on the “Last Ride of the Day”, which turns out to be most quintessentially Nightwish styled song on the album, recalling hints of the bands Oceanborn and Century Child albums. This band has always been a master of balladry in their own unique idiom, and they have penned their finest ever in “Turn Loose the Mermaids”, a song that evokes Loreena McKennitt-like celtic melancholy in which Olzon delivers what seems to be a paean about the acceptance of death. There is a fairly heady conceptual theme tying together all these songs (in part due to the film of the same name being released next year), in which a dying elderly man suffering from dementia begins to regress into childhood and relive moments of his life in dreams. Its not necessary to be aware of the concept to enjoy the album, though it does make the experience even richer. This is the heaviest, darkest, and greatest Nightwish album to date, and it raises the bar for this style of metal to unimaginable heights.

Album Highlights: “Ghost River”, “Turn Loose the Mermaids”, “Last Ride of the Day”, “Slow, Love, Slow”

 

 

 

3. Taake – Noregs Vaapen:

This one came out of nowhere, and quietly crept into my listening habits on repeat rotation before I really knew what was going on. When I did, I was surprised because Taake’s previous album (the self-titled Taake), while a good record, had done little in the way of really impressing me. On Noregs Vaapen, songwriter and vocalist Hoest injects a myriad of wildly different influences into his traditional Norwegian black metal style, in ways that are difficult to sum up in a single phrase. In “Du Ville Ville Vestland”, a barrage of standard tremolo riffs and blast beats is punctuated by nearly alternative rock flourishes, and breaks wide open at the 4:10 mark, into an amazingly catchy Def Leppard-arena-rock styled riff and matching drum beat, followed by what sounds like a twangy bass guitar handling the lead melody. Twangy bass guitar leads in a black metal song?! Its an awesome moment, the first of many. A banjo makes an appearance in “Myr” and fits in beyond belief, helping along a mid-song transition while sounding like some long lost Norse instrument. In the album opener, “Fra Vadested Til Vaandesmed”, the combination of layered guitars over a tremolo-picked rhythm work to create a hypnotic, frenzied, dance-like quality. Check out the loose, jazzy, Porcupine Tree-invoking midsection in “Orkan”, and also the album highlight in “Norbundet”, where Taake eschew slicing riffs for airy, spacey, strummed guitar figures. A slew of guest stars are spotted throughout the album, such as Darkthrone’s Nocturno Culto, Mayhem’s Attila, and Demonaz from Immortal — and while they’re contributions are noticeable, the vocals really take a backseat to the music and compositions here.   This is an album that reveals its greatness when you allow it to wash over you. The amazing thing is that despite all its prog-rock deviations and non-black metal influences, it couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than a Norwegian black metal album. Its not quite black-n-roll, nor is it attempting to emulate any of the genre-bending reworkings of the black metal sound that are coming out of the United States and France. Here we have the most radical black metal album released in at least ten years, and its by an eighteen year old band from Bergen, Norway.

Album Highlights: “Norbundet”, “Fra Vadested Til Vaandesmed, “Du Ville Ville Vestland”

 

 

 

 

4. Falconer – Armod:

I’m a recent convert to these guys. My eye opening experience with Symphony X’s Iconoclast spurred me to revisit many bands I had previously ignored or tried to like and failed. Falconer was the first of them to come back and slap me awake with a back catalog of albums that left me stunned and completely obsessed, to the same degree that I became permanently obsessed with other power metal greats such as Blind Guardian, Edguy/Avantasia, and others back in the day. It was fortunate then that this happened just before the release of Falconer’s seventh album Armod in June. This may be a power metal album, but its one of the most crushingly heavy albums released this year. If you aren’t aware of this band’s history, it is helpful to understand that their songwriter and guitarist Stefan Weinerhall’s previous musical project was the folk/black metal band Mithotyn. This explains Falconer’s tendency to rely upon heavy, crunchy guitar riffs over the sometimes more airy keyboard driven bands found in power metal. Not to forget the fact that “Griftefrid” is driven by relentless black metal blast beats (seriously), which makes for one of the most unusual power metal tracks I’ve ever heard.

 

In fact, guitar-wise, there is a great deal of music on this album that seems to be very influenced by the Gothenburg melodic death metal sound in the best possible way. Another interesting facet of this album is that the lyrics are all in Swedish, (something the band says will be a one off). Its a great experiment, because while a big part of the appeal of Falconer’s prior albums is the crystalline clear vocals of Mathias Blad and the often poetic qualities found within their English lyrics, his vocals are just as commanding and dramatic in Swedish. In fact the distinctively sharp nuances found within the language allows the songwriting to be far more complex and shifting than normal. Blad’s perfect theatrical baritone vocals are an odd duck in the power metal world, and based on opinions I’ve seen here and there, its a voice you either enjoy tremendously, or not at all. I find it refreshing, as his vocals possess a natural heaviness that lends gravity to both aggressive tracks and gentle ballads. To be sold on this album, all you need to do is listen to the first track, “Svarta Ankan”, which punches you right in the gut with harmonizing rhythm guitars, then folds in a beautiful vocal duet with Blad and his sister(!) Heléne Blad over softly plucked acoustic guitars — all followed by one of THE best guitar solos I’ve heard this year, a Brian May-esque doozy that leaves your jaw on the floor. But thats just the beginning, the entire album is fantastic, with doses of moments that make you rewind and have another listen.

Album Highlights: “Svarta Ankan”, “Herr Peder Och Hans Syster”, “Rosornas Grav”

 

 

 

 

5. Iced Earth – Dystopia:

This was a make or break album for Iced Earth, and everyone including band leader Jon Schaffer knew it. For myself, the departure of Matt Barlow wasn’t exactly a surprise, and to be completely honest, not an unwelcome one either. Don’t get me wrong, I love Matt Barlow, but something was off on 2008’s Crucible of Man, in terms of Barlow and Schaffer’s ability to move in lock step. I guess its understandable, Barlow was absent from the band for nearly half a decade and missed a few records and tours, while Schaffer had grown used to writing for the more flinty edged vocals of Ripper Owens. When Barlow announced that this time he was gone for good, I think I along with many others figured that there would be no one able to come in and carry this band forward anymore, and that we’d be hearing a retirement announcement fairly soon. To the rescue comes ex-Into Eternity throat Stu Block, whose performance not only ushers in what is the greatest Iced Earth album since 1997’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, but lays down a significant challenge to Barlow’s legacy as the greatest Iced Earth vocalist. This album is grin inducing, bringing back a focus to pure and simple great metal songwriting that focuses on catchy melodies, anthemic choruses, and thundering, galloping riffs. Its not shackled like the last two albums by being conceptual and having to deliver a story, nor is it conscious of having to strive for sounding epic. Gone are the Blind Guardian-ripped off choirs in choruses that plagued the past couple records.

 

What you get is Schaffer’s most focused, and dammit, FUN to listen to album in well over a decade. I heard album opener “Dystopia” for the first time when I was driving home, and its heart pounding build up to a rousing, electrifying chorus filled me with a jolt of adrenaline to such a degree that after I finished headbanging along to it I realized I was twenty miles over the speed limit! Stu Block’s perfect blend of Barlow’s low baritone with Owens high pitched registers is honed into a vocal style that is really quite perfect for Iced Earth. I keep wondering what the past few records could have been like had he been at the vocal helm. What you’ll really remember about this record after giving it a few spins, however, is the quality of the songwriting. There’s some kind of undefinable ‘x factor’ at work here, as most of these songs hit my metal bone in such a way that it reminded me of how it used to feel when I was a teenager, just hearing a classic metal album for the first time and knowing that it changed the way I perceived music. I’m not saying this album is a classic, in fact, a few relatively weaker songs kept this from being any higher on this list, but it did succeed in renewing my faith in Schaffer and Iced Earth in general.

Album Highlights: “Dystopia”, “V”, “Dark City”, “End of Innocence”, “Iron Will”

 

 

 

 

6. Edguy – The Age of the Joker:

Here’s the thing with this album — its far better than 2008’s Tinnitus Sanctus, just as good as 2006’s Rocket Ride, yet not as great as 2004’s Hellfire Club or its classic predecessor, Mandrake. Why the chronology lesson? Because its important to see this album as a positive step in the right direction. Tinnitus Sanctus wasn’t a terrible album by any means (in fact it had one of the bands best songs ever in “Thorn Without a Rose”), but it was at best a grower, and at worst a mediocre release. Now that singer/songwriter Tobias Sammet is finished for the time being with his solo project Avantasia’s recent trilogy of albums (of which some fans suspect sucked up most of Sammet’s creative inspiration, leaving the aforementioned Tinnitus Sanctus a tad bereft), he was free to refocus his considerable talents on his day job. Its not an exaggeration to say that this album features some of Edguy’s strongest material to date, as well as their most adventurous. Take the oddly country western influenced “Pandora’s Box”, where strange twang infused verses soon unload into one of Sammet’s most glorious choruses, a panoramic vocal cascade that recalls the dreamy eyed days of the Mandrake era. The celtic melodies that lace together “Rock of Cashel” are pure ear candy, and they open into an abrupt, startling medieval sounding solo section midway through that showcases Jens Ludwig’s natural fluidity as a guitarist.

 

I’ve long become accustomed to the fact that along with a batch of absolutely die hard Tobias Sammet fans, I’m a rarity in that I tend to love any ballad written by the guy. Look, either you like metal bands doing ballads or you don’t, but Sammet is one of metal’s shooting stars when it comes to crafting them, and he may have scored one of his best in “Every Night Without You”. Softly strummed acoustic guitars, minimal keyboard orchestrations, and Sammet’s rough edged melodic vocals set up the framework, and the excellent backing vocals of Oliver Hartmann and Cloudy Yang raise the epic chorus to absolute euphoric heights. Towards the end of the song, as if in a subtle nod to their pure power metal past of albums like Vain Glory Opera and Theater of Salvation, triumphant horns blare out to punctuate the bridge before the Slash-esque guitar solo. Another gem is “Fire on the Downline”, with its slow burning verses that flare into a melodic refrain that is again wonderfully supported by the talented backing vocal choir that Sammet seems so adept at utilizing lately. This is an album that I had every anticipation of being in my top five of the year, but it faced some seriously stellar competition, and there is some stuff on here I consider average to even filler for Edguy. Overall however, its a quality album, from which I have culled several of my all-time favorite Edguy songs. I just hope that its the first step on the path back towards greatness that so defined Edguy in their classic era. Iced Earth did it, now its your turn Mr. Sammet.

Album Highlights: “Rock of Cashel”, “Breathe”, “Every Night Without You”, “Fire on the Downline”

 

 

 

 

7. Týr – The Lay Of Thrym:

I’ll keep this fairly simple and to the point. Týr make consistently great albums, and if you haven’t treated yourself to any of them by this point you really need to rectify that mistake. They’re an unusual force within metal in that they’re not quite folk or power metal, but a mix of both while simultaneously sounding like an old fashioned heavy metal band at the same time. Nicely crunchy riffs follow the path drawn out by Scandinavian folk musicality, yet they manage to avoid sounding like the soundtrack to some bad renaissance fair, unlike a few bands tagged with the folk label that I can think of. This is undeniably heavy music, yet its written by a band with an ear for beautiful melody and in particular effective vocal harmonization. These guys all have excellent voices that are able to work in unison with each other to provide complementary tones to create a vocal tone that is inimitable. Listen to a stunning example of this in “Fields of the Fallen”, in which the multitude of vocals are delivered in perfect sequences where the pauses between phrases are interjected by a quick and catchy guitar figure. The soft/heavy ballad “Evening Star” is the greatest song Metallica never wrote, a slow tension building crescendo to a roaring, double bass kick pounding chorus with one of the best couplets they have ever penned: “When home is far behind, and ever the long roads wind/ I keep your memory in my mind, one day I’ll repay in kind”. They treat the Dehumanizer era Sabbath classic “I” with all the extra heaviness that song has always been begging for, Heri Joensen’s distinctive vocals giving the song an urgency that Dio’s rendition never had. This might be their most complete album yet; it displays a maturity and renewed faith in basic metal tenets. While that scales back their traditionally folk based sound as a result, it has served to tighten up the aggression in their sound and sharpen their songwriting.

Album Highlights: “Fields of the Fallen”, “Evening Star”, “I”, “Flames Of The Free”

 

 

 

 

8. Burzum – Fallen:

You have to hand it to him, Varg Vikernes has proven a lot of doubters (myself included) wrong about his ability to pick up where he left off in terms of pre-incarceration Burzum. He made a great album in last year’s Belus, a sort of reintroduction to his classic Burzum sound with a few new styles thrown in. But Fallen is so much better, in part because he goes into full on experimental mode here, utilizing clean vocals in a way that he never has. That may sound a bit off putting considering this is Vikernes, not Bruce Dickinson, but believe me it actually works well. His clean, melodic singing is eerily spooky, and he manages to weave it into his songs not as a layer over the top, but as an integral part of the song structure. No better example of this exists then in the excellent “Jeg Faller”, in which he hums you into the chorus before quietly delivering the hook. Hypnotic riffs have always been a Burzum trademark, and there are a plethora on display here. Some of the best reside in “Valen”, which is also notable for having some of the most melodic guitar tones ever to be found on any Burzum release. This is by far the most musical work he has ever done, relying more on tunefulness than sheer bleak riffage (plenty of that too though). Its a compelling listen, and one that you will keep coming back to. Over time you might realize, like I have, that when you’re in the mood for some Burzum, you put this record on first.

Album Highlights: “Jeg Faller”, “Valen”, “Budstikken”

 

 

 

 

9. Absu – Abzu:

This has quietly been a really good year for black metal, not only when considering releases by Taake and Burzum, but others such as Ravencult’s Morbid Blood (who narrowly missed this list). Absu’s strangely titled Abzu is yet another addition to that list, and it far surpasses their 2009 “comeback” album Absu (are these guys purposefully getting a little lazy in the title department?). This is to me the true follow up to their classic record Tara. Abzu is a short yet brutal 36 minutes of black thrash that is inspired in all aspects. Proscriptor’s always jaw dropping drumming is on full barrage mode here, but its the wild, seemingly out of control guitars and their slightly melodic bends and twists layered over beds of hypnotic rhythms that are the real attention grabber. The vocals are the same excellent, raw, tortured shrieks of agony that Proscriptor always delivers, his natural rasp complimenting the tone of the music perfectly. At times, this does sound more pure thrash than anything, yet its his vocal style that keeps Absu weighing anchor in black metal territory. There are two new members in the band here, the guitarist Vis Crom and bassist Ezezu, and they get the credits for writing the music here (Proscriptor handles the lyrics). In Vis Crom particularly, Proscriptor seems to have finally found a worthy songwriting talent to replace the gaping void left by Shaftiel. How he manages to keep unearthing this kind of talent out of nowhere is anyone’s guess. If you were left feeling empty after the last album, this one will fill you up.

Album Highlights: “Circles of the Oath”, “Abraxas Connexus”, “”Skrying in the Spirit Vision”

 

 

 

 

10. Ghost Brigade – Until Fear No Longer Defines Us:

I had not known about Ghost Brigade until shortly after the release of this album, when word of mouth led me to check it out with no idea of what to expect at all. Its a pleasant surprise; a mix of Finnish depression rock ala countrymen Sentenced and Amorphis, Opeth-like sections of iceberg shaped walls of sound, and an alternating mix of good throaty death growls and clean vocals that evoke a cross between Orphaned Land’s Kobi Farhi and Evergrey’s Tom Englund. If most of the above mentioned bands put you off, then you might be naturally wary of this stuff, as its pretty much right up that alley. But don’t dismiss this without giving it a shot, its bound to surprise with the amount of heaviness it contains within its smartly written, complex song structures. There are poppy elements to be found here, and that’s not something to be dismissed as a negative trait. If the song “Chamber”, with its spacey, guitar plucked intro and surging chorus doesn’t manage to stick in your head, then it sucks to be you. If you’re already intrigued however, then you’d be hard pressed to ignore what is one of the best albums in this style to be released since Sentenced’s elegant swan song, The Funeral Album.

Album Highlights: “Chamber”, “Grain”, “In the Woods”, “Clawmaster”

Scroll to top