So before I start writing about all the new music 2022 has already thrown at us so far (definitely the opposite of last January), I wanted to think out loud for a bit on some stuff that’s been on my mind for the past few months now. Namely, what I think metal as a genre and an industry could and should be doing better. During my foray into beginning to explore K-Pop last year, I got to learn about more than just new music, I got to understand how the Korean music industry has simultaneously structured itself around both digital streaming and physical music sales in a way that prioritizes both and yields tangible results. And of course, a reality check first. Metal bands and labels likely don’t have the budgets that some of these K-Pop companies have, but not all K-Pop companies have major label budgets, some of them are mid-sized companies, and some are fledgling startups. Yet all these companies seem to understand how to generate interest, build it, and capitalize on momentum, something that I’ve long lamented that metal bands and labels absolutely suck at. Here’s a few things I think metal could learn from K-Pop:
Smaller promotional windows generate more interest.
Metal bands of all stripes tend to do the following: Release a track or lyric video (more on that below) or music video months and months ahead of time, maybe another single or two down the line, and then finally, the album is released. The amount of time varies of course, it can range from a few months to a half a year, but of course the album’s initial announcement is usually released well ahead of any promotional single, at times up to eight months out or longer. I’ll pick on one of my favorite bands a little bit here… check out the November 5th, 2021 announcement date for the December 3rd, 2021 release date of the “Deliver Us From Evil” single, which itself is coming out over half a year ahead of the September 2022 release date for the upcoming untitled album. The band is citing delays in vinyl manufacturing for the reason for such a lengthy gap between the single and the album. That’s an extreme example of course, so consider this December 1st album announcement/MV release for Hammerfall for an album coming out at the end of February. A little better I suppose, but still, a single release three whole months out from the actual release of the album is rather far out… too far out to sustain any excitement over that considerable period of time. Do you remember what that December 1st Hammerfall single sounded like (no durr… sounds like Hammerfall jokes plz, they’re funny but now’s not the time!)?
Some of these manufacturing derived lead times are so lengthy, that even I forget that a single has been released or that an announcement was made, particularly with so many releases to consider and so much other noise on the media landscape (and I’m actively trying to pay attention!). And as the Blind Guardian example suggests, the vinyl manufacturing situation has continually gotten more and more precarious, delays caused by an ever mounting queue of orders for new releases, re-releases, Adele, record store day special editions, more new releases… etc, you get the picture. To fill in the details here, I’ll link this fantastic, illuminating article written by Eric Grubbs on the reasons for the vinyl delays (really worth the time, it’s a short read too). So lets assume that the lengthy gap between the announcement of a pre-order date along with the release of a single/MV and the eventual release of the full length album is largely due to approximating the lengthy lead time required for vinyl orders to be fulfilled. Labels/bands stick to this process because they ideally want to time both the digital and physical releases to hit the market at the same time. I’m arguing that I don’t think such a long lead time is necessary to ensure strong physical product sales. A considerable subset of metal fans are loyal physical product buyers, and would snap up a pre-order for a well made vinyl whenever it went live. And yes that includes a potential vinyl release after the digital album has already hit the streaming services. You might notice I’m not even mentioning CDs yet — hold on a sec, I’m getting to those.
In K-Pop, the announcement-to-release cycle is incredibly tiny in comparison, and specifically designed that way on purpose. Companies will usually time the announcement of an upcoming release with an eye to deliver said release within a few weeks. Take the recent January release of the new solo album by Mamamoo vocalist Wheein. The company releasing the album, The L1VE, made the announcement for her new album Whee on December 24th, 2021, and as you can see to the left, they provided an image for fans which detailed all the specifics of the promotional campaign leading up the album’s release on January 16th, 6pm KST. This promotion schedule release image is standard operating procedure in the K-Pop industry. Everyone from the biggest groups like Twice or Itzy or Stray Kids to singers from groups releasing solo albums like Wheein see their releases launched with similar images, and more importantly, with a similarly compressed window of time in mind. Twenty three days was the gap between the announcement of Wheein’s album and it’s actual release. If you glance over the dates listed in that image, you’ll see a gradual build up of things for fans to look forward to… the pre-order date to start, the track list on another day, music video trailers, and concept photos on other days, all leading up to an album spanning medley and full artwork reveal right up until the big moment, release day, where the unveiling of the album is typically accompanied by the release of the lead single’s music video as well. Granted K-Pop fans can be rabid, but this very precise but controlled release of information leading to the moment of release inspires a frenzy of tweeting, retweeting, discussion on reddit and VLive (a K-Pop based social media app/site). The hype that is generated is real and it’s designed that way on purpose, these little tidbits of released information, almost on a daily to near daily basis can yield impressive sales and streaming numbers for artists. Wheein’s album just debuted at number four on the Gaon album chart in Korea, not a bad swing for a solo record in a super competitive, uber crowded market.
Now I’m not suggesting that metal needs to co-opt this idea and run with every single detail, but taking the vinyl pre-orders out of the promotional release build up equation would go a long way towards generating hype for fanbases of bands. It’s a noisy world, you know this, I know this. There’s a lot of stuff being released that we’re all having to attempt to keep track of — TV shows, music, gigs, all in addition to the daily grind of work, bills, food, and sleep. And again, this is coming from a guy who writes a metal oriented music blog, I’m shouting as loud as I politely can: Make it easier to be a fan! Trim down the release schedule for metal albums from announcement to release. I don’t need to hear about a damn album being released six months from now. Tell me a month to a month and a half out for god sake. Two tops! Maybe consider timing the release of the single/MV closer to the actual release of the album, so the song will still be lingering in my mind and have me genuinely excited about a nigh-impending album just around the corner, not something that might someday be eventually released many months from now when I’ve long forgotten said single and lost whatever lingering excitement it was able to generate. And hell maybe take a page out of the K-Pop playbook and try out a schedule release image strategy along with it’s gradual rollout — teasers for the MV, a full artwork unveiling… don’t just dump all the info out at once months and months ahead of time, try to generate some actual hype and anticipation. And most importantly, build album release windows with a CD preorder and digital/streaming release in mind first — and allow the vinyl to lag behind if necessary (which apparently will likely be the case for awhile). This brings me to the following point:
Stop releasing CDs in jewel cases. They suck. Music isn’t software. Digibooks are also boring. Do better.
I abandoned the idea of buying music in jewel cases years ago when I realized that what I was getting out of these costly purchases wasn’t worth the money I was shelling out. Even during my halcyon days of collecting all kinds of music on CD including metal, I lamented the lack of anything remotely interesting going on in the presentation. A tiny booklet with some relatively uninteresting artwork, a few band photographs, and miniscule print wasn’t something that I was pleased with as a collector. When I stopped, part of the reason was that digital music was so much more convenient, but also that metal bands rarely offered releases that were presented in an interesting way. A jewel case release looks like software, in fact I’ve bought CDs before whose “booklet” was nothing more than a two page insert, mirroring the discount software you’d find in jewel cases in the bargain bin at a CompUSA way back in the day. The last metal album I bought on CD was Maiden’s Senjutsu in it’s “deluxe” edition, essentially a gatefold digipak, the cheap cardboardy kind with the inlet CD trays. The artwork in the booklet was of course, CD booklet sized… and as such, relatively difficult to discern details and leave a lasting impression. This was one of metal’s premiere artists releasing a new album, and I bought it out of fan loyalty and an urge to throw some support their way, but I felt tepid about the physical product I was holding in my hands and haven’t looked at it since. For a genre of music that prides itself on it’s fans supporting physical releases and supporting the bands, why the hell do we get such uninspired physical product?
A few months prior to that, when I was just getting into K-Pop, I found a little store tucked in the front corner of a Korean grocery that sold K-Pop albums and bought my first one (Mamamoo’s WAW). I wasn’t sure why at the time, but in retrospect I realized that I missed the fun of buying physical music and these K-Pop releases were visually beautiful, with thoughtfully designed packaging that wasn’t jewel case shaped and offered more than just a flimsy booklet inside. Most K-Pop releases are lavishly packaged (check out the vid below), with photobooks and photocards on high quality paper, with often unusually oblong physical dimensions that result in something that looks fantastic displayed on a shelf. My physical K-Pop collection has grown to seventeen releases to date, all of them wildly unique from group to group, even within a group’s own discography, the variance can be shocking. Eye on Design’s Tassia Assis wrote up this really excellent feature on K-Pop packaging and why that industry puts an emphasis on delivering quality products to fans, and how sales of CDs are skyrocketing there when they’re heading towards the gutter over here in the west. As the mode of listening to music shifts ever more to domination by streaming services, there is still a place for CDs in the physical release market for metal music. They’re cheap to press by themselves, an economical choice for bands offering a t-shirt/album bundle, and not subject to the aforementioned vinyl manufacturing backlog. But I’ll be brutally honest, as someone who used to have a physical jewel case music collection that numbered well over a thousand albums, I feel no urge to buy metal albums on disc at the moment. That needs to change.
Give me and many other metal fans who quietly feel like me a reason to pull out a fistful of cash like Fry shouting “shut up and take my money”. Metal of all stripes desperately needs a K-Pop like reinvention of the physical CD format, particularly in mirroring the way some of these K-Pop artists use their physical album presentations to express storytelling elements or conceptual themes (there’s a lot of that in the genre, I was surprised too). And I know what you’re thinking right now — the budgets in metal just aren’t there. I’ll concede that they aren’t in the realm of your typical K-Pop company, but I see metal bands wasting money on printing standard jewel case editions or slightly less boring digipaks or gatefolds or the worst offender of them all, the dreaded slipcase around a standard jewel case edition. Enough everyone. Stop wasting financial resources on these utterly forgettable products, and work with a product designer to create a truly unique physical CD product that is lavishly packaged, and filled with interesting items (metal bands need not copy K-Pop groups here, you don’t have to deliver photobooks… the possibilities are wide open). The production costs of such an item would likely necessitate a smaller print run of these at a higher price, but all the better. Metal fans are loyal. And if you reward that loyalty by offering them something that smacks of quality, they’ll gladly purchase it not only in the earnest effort to show support, but also because its something they genuinely feel an urge to own. Amongst all my metalhead friends, I can honestly only name one who still buys metal CDs on the regular. That’s a problem.
Metal bands need to rethink their approach to music videos, and abandon lyric videos.
This isn’t so much inspired by K-Pop as it is by simply watching the music video output of most metal bands. It might be highlighted by my observing the juxtaposition in quality that K-Pop offers on the music video front, where a well thought out concept and execution on the MV front is crucial to the success of a comeback (ie a release). No one wants metal bands to take out personal loans to film MVs, but there’s got to be a better way to go than releasing some of the dreck that’s being shelled out lately. One of the recurring topics of discussion on MSRcast episodes is us poking fun at some terrible metal music video we’d watched before or during our recording session, and it’s made me start thinking about doing a feature here highlighting actual good music videos within the genre (because lets face it, they’re few and far between). The reality that a lot of bands are facing is a lack of touring income over the past two years, which has only just begun to pick up again in the latter half of 2021. So with my appeal to bands above to consider making better physical product, I’d throw out a secondary appeal to them as well — stop wasting money on terrible music videos. If you have a genuinely great idea and can pull it off with what will likely be a small budget, then go for it. But the band playing in a darkened, wet-floor warehouse is just played out. The soundstage/greenscreen setup with low budget CGI is also tired. There’s nothing exciting about seeing a metal band playing on a make believe battlefield. Call me a curmudgeon. You know I’m right.
Labels would argue that you need to have a visual representation of your music, and YouTube is a easy outlet to utilize for promotional reasons. I understand that, but not every release needs to come with a music video that would turn off newcomers and make your existing fans cringe or just tab out to hear the song in the background without the visual distraction. The less expensive option that metal bands still seem insistent on utilizing is the lyric video, a widelyreviled format that is as embarrassing as it is aggravating. In the metal realm, I’ve seen maybe one that was actually well executed, but that was by Katatonia, a band whose dark tone and melancholic feel lend themselves to some nicely thought out lyrics. With all due respect to Brothers of Metal (a band I like), “Prophecy of Ragnarök” doesn’t need a lyric video. There’s nothing lacking in a band’s single release being a simple image of the cover art to go with the audio. And if bands really feel the need to crank out a video, either go all in on a visually engaging concept with the most amount of money you can spend (on the big budget front, Sabaton did an excellent job with their recent MV for “Christmas Truce”…released five months ahead of the album proper of course), or really think about how you can get the most out a lower budget. That means largely avoiding CGI which you know will look tacky, and instead being true to the who the band is, and maybe showcasing a little personality beyond “grrr we’re tough”. I’ll point to Red Fang as a band who delivers consistently entertaining MVs on a very limited budget (check out “Wires” below for proof), but they utilize their low budget approach in such a creative way where their personalities come through the screen. It’s time to stop throwing a couple grand at MV studios who deliver mediocre results, and really think up some truly fresh ideas or at the very least, use that couple grand MV budget in a smarter, less predictable way.
Okay I’ll end it here. It felt good to get some of this off my chest, even if no one in a position to affect any change in regards to my ideas ever reads this. Sometimes I have this stuff gurgling around in my head for ages and it’s something I bring up in conversation again and again in person with friends who are no doubt sick of it — so it’s better that I spill it out in these beginning of the year thought pieces. I think we all know metal bands have had to weather the financial impact of the pandemic in a more blunt way than say a typical K-Pop group would (though I’d be remiss not to point out that even that industry is hurting due to the lack of live shows). I know many metal fans who would agree with some or most of what I’ve written above, and I think listening to this kind of feedback would benefit a lot of bands and labels in terms of better allocating financial resources, giving fans better quality releases and content, and ultimately increasing physical album sales in a genre where artists really benefit from it. Let me know if you agree or disagree below.
As I enter the tenth year of existence for The Metal Pigeon blog, its time to look back on a year that was undoubtedly strange, unexpected, and challenging for me as a music fan. To summarize it, I went through a period in the spring where I was feeling a little uninspired by most of the metal records coming out, and as a result started to check out different styles of music. I dove really hard into K-Pop in particular (and have kept diving), and had to figure out how to reignite a passion for metal that had all of a sudden felt a little stagnant. To the latter point, I figured out that a great tonic was to allow myself to escape the new release treadmill and simply revisit older classic metal records for fun. I also found out that when it came to new releases, my years long strategy of just slamming repeat listens of a record sort of by force was beginning to yield purely negative results. It was more prudent to wait until I was in the mood to hear something before giving it a spin, a process which definitely resulted in delayed reviews and even missing a few things, but better to slow down a little than feel burned out and stop entirely. All these months later, I feel like my connection with metal has become stronger, particularly through finding an refreshed appreciation for black metal again. As it turns out, when you spend a good amount of time ingesting super sugary music, what you really begin to crave as an antidote is it’s most extreme opposite. As a result, your musical perception is actually more open to appreciate the details and textures of extreme metal anew, rather than feeling like you’ve heard everything before. I suspect it’s a lot like if you scarf down a package of cookies in one sitting, your mind will have you yearning for I dunno, a salad the next day. The lesson learned here is that diversity is good, and balance even better — if you’re feeling a little unmoved by one style or another, check out something entirely different to change it up. This 2021 best albums list is a perfect example of how that can really have a dramatic effect.
1.Therion – Leviathan:
It’s a testament to how much I love Leviathan, that despite its late January release, it was my clear cut, without a doubt number one album all the way up until mid-summer, when the new Helloween album came out and I started to wonder if it would slip a bit. I questioned it further when in the late summer, I was getting a flurry of black metal recommendations tossed my way, and damn near all of them were direct hits, gripping my attention and dominating most of my metal listening time (which was in precious supply at certain points). But I would find myself returning to Leviathan regularly, in random moments when I didn’t even intend on playing the album all the way through, just a few songs here or there, to satisfy a craving to hear a particular melody or chorus. Spotify reminded me of this on December 1st when it presented me with my Your Top Songs 2021 playlist, and all the tracks from this album were on it (yes the whole damn album). Last.fm backs up the stats, Leviathan is my most listened to album of 2021 by well over a hundred listens compared to the album in second place, and my first rule of making these lists is to be honest with myself, even if it risks exposing me as a total fanboy. And look, I’ll embrace that title, because Therion’s first proper studio album of original material in a decade was a monumental event in the 2021 release calendar for me. This record had the added burden of being the follow up to first Therion album that I regarded as somewhat of a disappointment (2010’s Sitra Ahra). Fortunately Christofer Johnsson decided to abandon that album’s more avant garde/progressive tendencies and made a conscious decision to return to the band’s classic symphonic metal sound, even telegraphing in interviews ahead of the album release that this was an attempt at making a record that hardcore Therion fans would appreciate. And here’s the thing, he certainly succeeded in achieving that goal, but I believe that in doing so, he actually steered the band’s sound into a direction they’d not previously explored.
The beauty of Leviathan is that despite its overt look back to the band’s late 90s, post-Theli symphonic metal era, it’s a gaze that is undoubtedly refracted by the band’s gradual shifts in their sound over the course of all those albums between then and now. Where classic albums such as Vovin and Deggial were moody, dramatic, orchestral driven works, Secret Of The Runes was a jump to a heavier, almost hypnotic guitar driven approach. Their twin albums Lemuria and Sirius B were expansive, cinematic masterworks, almost panoramic in their scope and ambition. And then we saw the introduction of a new vocal driven era with Gothic Kabbalah, where for the first time the songwriting ran through some pretty incredible singers who had the ability to dominate songs through unforgettable vocal melodies. Even though releases since have been few and far between, this era has lingered; case in point, the band’s last release was the actual opera Beloved Antichrist, where guitars took a backseat to the stellar cast of classically trained singers who, you know, did their opera thing for most of those three discs. So no matter how pointedly Johnsson decided to look back at that particular late 90s era, the sound he wove together on Leviathan couldn’t help but be affected by everything in between, particularly the emergence of strong lead vocals as the band’s chief melodic force within the songwriting. This album’s most heart stirring moments are it’s most gloriously vocal driven ones — the eternity evoking choirs in “Die Wellen der Zeit”, Taida Nazraić’s achingly melancholic lament in “Ten Courts of Diyu”, Marco Hietala’s impassioned vibrato in “Tuonela”, Thomas Vikström’s mighty tenor with just a tinge of hard rock rasp on “El Primer Sol” — the list could go on. So much of this album feels fresh and new for the band, a spiritual renewal by embracing the past, a seemingly accidental forging of a new sound via the old axiom that you can never truly revisit the past again. I wonder if Christofer himself would be surprised at hearing a reaction like mine. Part of the beauty of nostalgia is melancholy, that longing for something that is elusive, but for me this album felt like a warm hug, it would always leave me strangely cheerful and hopeful in the moment, and that feeling would linger.
I think for most of the first half of this year, I didn’t really know what I was looking for in metal as a whole. Sure there were anticipated albums from veteran bands I’d spend time pouring over, but in the grand scheme of things, I would listen to new releases of all stripes and most of it was really not leaving a lasting impression. And as I stated above in my introduction, my purely melodic cravings were being satiated in a big way by another genre of music entirely, so the fact that power metal as a whole was having an underwhelming year was compounding my feeling of aimlessness. I think it was somewhere around late summer, while swimming in a sea of K-Pop, that I realized I was feeling an occasional deep yearning to hear something that was it’s spiritual and textural opposite. This timed perfectly with my being introduced to a handful of really spectacular black metal records from friends of mine (some of which I discuss below). But the one that shook me the most was the late fall release of Tales Of Othertime by Stormkeep, a relatively new symphonic black metal outfit from Denver (a realm of majestic, snow capped mountains of its own, take that Norway!). Stormkeep won me over with their perfectly blended mix of 90s era Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon, and Emperor put through a Blashyrkh filter. Vocalist Issac Faulk (aka Grandmaster Otheyn Vermithrax Poisontongue because hell, sure why not?) delivers maybe the most entertaining and convincing black metal vocal performance of the past decade, working with a delivery that mixes razor sharp blackened shrieking with a surprising amount of enunciative clarity. His approach reminds me of vintage Shagrath ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, with a splash of Abbath’s guttural depths, a combination that makes for narrative magic — he sounds like he’s embodying the hooded character on the album cover, standing mountainside and recanting something terrible to the wind. The beauty of this album is that despite said frosty artwork and the generally bleak tone that the band achieves when going full on black metal tremolo/blastbeat mode, there’s a surprising amount of warmth being radiated from these songs. I feel it seeping through in the audible hum of the bass, the very Euro-power tinge to the keyboard arrangements (some very Blind Guardian vibes happening in places, particularly in the transitions to quieter passages), and just in the overall theatrical approach the band is favoring in these richly varied compositions. This is a perfect symphonic black metal album, to my ears anyway. It reminds me of when I first heard records in this style way back in the day, and how it made me feel at the time: Entranced, mystified, and transported somewhere else. More than any other year in the history of writing this blog, I needed to be reminded of that feeling once again.
3. Duskmourn – Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns:
On a surprise recommendation from our notoriously non-metal music fan George Tripsas, I was introduced this past summer to New Jersey duo Duskmourn’s Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns, who tap into a combination of metal styles that reach down to the very roots of what made me an extreme metal fan in the first place. There’s artfully crafted melodeath-ian lead guitars adorning expansive yet rustic, at times gritty blackened folk metal ala the early aughts, and most importantly, these songs just reverberate with me in a very physical, visceral way. So much of what started to put me off on black metal over the past few years is when bands make things too obtuse, too dense, or just too lost in their own meandering train of thought to reach out to the listener and form any kind of connection (I’m looking at you Enslaved). But listen to the first minute of “Deathless” here”, hitting us with a mix of complex black metal riffing, an incense-scented Summoning inspired epic keyboard arrangement, only to suddenly break way into a slamming heavy metal riff with thundering toms. As Halford once sang, get me locked in, get me headbanging in my desk chair. When I first listened to this album in my car, I was pounding my fist on the steering wheel to these drums. That gorgeous lead guitar solo towards the end — I mean there’s a reason why this tune ended up on my best songs list. On the title track, we’re ushered along by a stirring, majestic keyboard arrangement that acts as a melodic guide as the band rages underneath with undulating riff progressions and Walter Deyo’s charcoal blackened melodeath vocals. He and fellow guitarist Bill Sharpe keep these songs moving just enough, happy enough to plug a great riff a few times because of course you should, but introducing sharp contrasting variations in the song structure to allow tension to build and release, for melodies to blossom and breathe. Listen to how “The Sleeping Tide” changes a multitude of times throughout it’s 5 minute plus run time, exploding in a primal, anguished riff sequence towards the end. There’s a real Moonsorrow influence lurking throughout this record that harkens back to what made that band so staggering to behold in their best moments, particularly in their balancing of raw, primal, blackened aggression with beautifully complex, melancholic melodies. This is the band’s third album, they’ve clearly been honing their craft unbeknownst to me of course, but they found me when I needed them the most.
Two things can both be true: That we all wish the tragedy that informed these past two StS albums (and Hallatar, and Trees Of Eternity) never occurred in the first place, and secondly, that guitarist and main songwriter Juha Raivio has managed to create astonishing art out of his very deep grief. And truth be told, I didn’t really think that he could better 2019’s When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light (one that year’s best albums), but there is a very particular and distinctive kind of magic about Moonflowers that might have it firmly in the conversation of being one of the best Swallow The Sun albums of all time. And this does feel like a musical sibling to …Shadow…, from the lengthy clean vocal melodies, to the dreamy, cosmos pondering atmospherics and wistful acoustic guitars. But despite the similarities, I feel like this album is the inverse of it’s predecessor, it’s emotional peaks landing not on it’s most violent, surging cuts, but in its more calmer, reflective songs. Take the album highlight “All Hallows Grieve”, where Oceans Of Slumber’s Cammie Gilbert joins Mikko Kotamäki on a sublimely haunting duet, it’s emotional refrain one of those moments where a beautifully written melody is elevated by an unforgettable performance. Then there’s “Keep Your Heart Safe From Me”, where despite the surprisingly Hope-esque riff to start things off, suddenly shifts into a Katatonia-like ebb and flow, finishing with as dazzling a guitar solo as I can remember on any StS album. And I really loved the weirdly Queensryche-ian vibes of “The Fight Of Your Life”, sounding like a distant cousin of “I Will Remember” or “Silent Lucidity”, Kotamäki’s vocals filled with a warmth despite all the ghostly effects put on his voice. This was a listening experience that required a bit more patience than …Shadow…, it’s pacing more subdued, it’s mood a little less anguished and violently reactive. It resulted in an album that seems out of time, particularly in the classical trio instrumental version that Raivio reworked, recorded by Trio Nox at Sipoo Church in Finland. I consider those pieces to be an extension of the album itself, instead of merely bonus tracks, because they have an entirely different emotional tenor to them despite working with mostly the same melodic structure. They made an already powerful album that much more emotionally engaging, and might be the most substantive “deluxe edition” addition in metal to date. To be sure, this was the most contemplative, inward looking album on this list in a year full of it’s exact opposite, a strange oddity that lived up to it’s namesake.
5. Fierce Deity – Power Wisdom Courage:
Every year there seems to be that band that comes out of nowhere and just levels me with a left hook through their awesomeness. Australia’s Fierce Deity was that band in 2021, it’s lone member Jonathan Barwick wowing me not only with this glorious masterpiece, but with his June release of The Trials Unmasked EP, a rustic, rootsy, Americana-informed reworking of his previous metal songs released over the past few years (you have to hear this one). I say songs because since Fierce Deity’s start in 2019, he’s been doing only digital single releases. But Power Wisdom Courage is his first all original EP release, a three track, 32 minute masterpiece that is his first complete statement, a fully realized musical journey that is audacious in its attitude, unapologetically trad metal, and tinged with a gorgeous streak of psychedelia. Of course you’ll likely recognize the album title as a reference to The Triforce from Zelda, and the band name pulled from a power-up found in Majora’s Mask, and to be sure, Barwick loves videogames and doesn’t shy away from hiding any it. He seems to occasionally go live on the Fierce Deity YouTube channel where he’s streaming himself playing and talking all things gaming (most recently seen playing Dark Souls III). But here on this record, he orchestrates a thunderous, bluesy hard rockin’ heavy metal assault with the kind of thick riffing that is at once anchoring and propulsive. How he manages to concoct an atmosphere that is rollicking as if a full band is jamming at once is beyond me, but even the drums, if indeed programmed, feel live and convincing. And this songwriting is enthralling, “Power” has a hook that won me over from the first time it graced my ears, and Barwick really understands how to write for his vocal type. He’s got a strong voice, full of character, a tone that registers more on the laid back, bellowing approach rather than the full throated going for the jugular attack of say Visigoth’s Jake Rogers. He describes his music as Stoner Power Metal on the Fierce Deity Bandcamp page, and that tag comes alive for me whenever the dreamy, stargazed atmospheric interludes pop up. They’re not distracting, they’re interwoven so deftly into the fabric of these songs that I can’t imagine them without, and their inclusion is a bold step for the band’s sound… moving beyond the more traditional metal approach heard on a cut like “Hearing Whispers” a few years ago. What excites me about Fierce Deity is that Barwick has found a truly authentic voice of his own, and it seems to have come naturally and without artifice. I love that he focuses on quality over quantity for his releases too, a concept I’ve seen work spectacularly well in K-Pop. Smaller focus, sharper execution. Make no mistake, this was the most exciting power metal release of the year.
6. Helloween – Helloween:
There was a moment there when I thought this would have sat atop this list at the end of the year. First off, it truly is one of the best albums released in 2021, and genuinely the best reunion album since Maiden shocked our collective faces with Brave New World (I know that there’s a few folks out there that would balk at this statement, sorry Dr. Metal!). That this record wasn’t an unfocused disaster given how it was constructed, with a multitude of band members taking turns handling songwriting duties over a pretty broad expanse of time, is quite frankly astonishing. Plans like this are supposed to result in plodding, mediocre messes, not an album that sounds like it was crafted with a laser focused precision by the band’s best songwriter. I was giddy on release night, staying up way too late to jam this over and over again, and it really was a euphoric experience to behold a veteran band hitting a grand slam this late in their career. That it sits here at number six on this list speaks more to the fact that I kinda burned myself out on it really quickly through the summer, and my other musical interests found myself reaching for more darker, abrasive forms of metal (see nearly everything else on this list) rather than the lighter shades found on this record. That being said, I still feel charged up when I hear “Out For The Glory”, an album opening, door-kicking in anthem that has one of the best Kai Hansen vocal drop ins ever. Michael Kiske and Andi Deris are incredible when they get to bounce off each other with vocal interplay as on “Fear Of The Fallen”, and Deris may have the best moment on the album on the ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. I need to shout out one of my personal favorites here in “Down In The Dumps”, a song that is a sweet balance of Walls Of Jericho era riffing and latter day pop candy Helloween, with a chorus that I found myself shouting along to in car rides (a pretty good sign of my approval). Of course there’s the strange and utterly surreal “Skyfall”, a song that is so packed with classic Helloween charm that you can’t help but smile at it’s audacious nature, particularly that David Bowie invoking bit in the middle. Don’t let the positioning on this list fool you, I loved the heck out of this album, but there was just so much competition for my listening time that it slipped down the ladder a bit.
7. Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:
This was one of those sneaky records that quietly burned up a ton of my listening time without me truly realizing it until I started looking at my play counts. But seeing those stats immediately brought to mind memories of me jamming this on my headphones during nightly walks, in the morning on my commute, on the drive home from work, etc. It would pop up intermittently, a tonic for a craving for all things melodeath. I actually think I listened to so few melodeath records this year because I was spending all my time bouncing between this and Duskmourn. If you’re unfamiliar, Ulthima are a Finnish-Mexican six piece who hit that sweet spot of Finnish melodeath that pulls from Children Of Bodom, Norther, and a little splash of early Kalmah in the way they balance aggressive elements with major key chord sequences. Just like Fierce Deity, there is a tangible videogame influence shining through this music, with cuts like “Black Swan” reverberating with shades of the Castlevania OST that the album title is referencing. It goes without saying that the title track here is a musical ode to that game, and really does somehow pull in major videogame music vibes through it’s melodies without resorting to cheap trickery like a random chiptune drop in. There was just something very satisfying about the listening experience on Symphony Of The Night, it brought tons of ear candy in it’s ultra melodic riff sequences, skillful lead parts, and the vocalist here, one Tuomas Antila has a real early Petri Lindroos quality to his delivery that I guess I’ve been missing from the man himself in Ensiferum lately. I wish I had something more poetic or insightful to say about this one, but sometimes an album is one of the year’s best because it just plain rules hard.
I suspect this will be on many folks’ year end lists (I know they’re all out, I haven’t looked at any yet!), because it just has that unmistakable quality of being undeniable. This came to me by way of an emphatic recommendation from friend of the podcast Justin The Metal Detector, and I’ll be honest, at first I was unmoved when listening to it. But a realization I’ve come to this year is the art of timing when it comes to listening to a record, so rather than dismissing it, I waited until I felt the need to hear something like it. That eventually came crawling, a desire for something bleak, unforgiving, and brutal to work as a palette cleanser for my aural sugar overdose. And one morning with the headphones on at work, it happened, this album was the black metal celery stick I needed and I was blown away. I think what I really enjoy about this record is that its not all bottom end or alternatively, high end screeching, but a well engineered variance of both and everything in between. Groza’s lead guitars hit those tinny registers on emphatic, punctuating tail ends of riffs, but its purposeful, with an aim to lock you into a hypnotic rhythm. Meanwhile there’s a black tornado of a rhythm section pummeling away below. There is obviously a huge debt to Mgla (and Uada… Groza are big on wearing hoods too) here, and of course I’m sure comparisons are being made between the two groups in almost every article written about them. I have no opinion on the subject really, but I can say that no Mgla album had me coming back for repeat listens as much as The Redemptive End has. And maybe this is just a purely personal anecdote, but I loved this album for it’s straightforwardness and almost monotone nature, the latter a quality I’ve dinged other bands with as a negative before. I dunno how to explain myself on that one — I just needed this album this year, among other terrific black metal releases. My chief takeaway for 2021 metal wise is that I was thrilled to be thrilled about black metal again, because it had been a damn long time.
9. Seth – La Morsure Du Christ:
In my personal black metal renaissance this year, I listened to quite a few really impressive albums, some of which I won’t be talking about here at year’s end because you know, ten spots only. But during the process of elimination, I had a hard time trying to justify not including La Morsure Du Christ from France’s longtime black metal institution Seth. I’m a little disappointed in myself that I hadn’t known about these guys before, they’ve been around since 1995 and apparently had a comeback on Season Of Mist in 2013. Unlike other French black metal names like Alcest and Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, Seth prefer a more straightforward, obliterate everything in their path approach to black metal. Their sound owes a lot to Mayhem, and perhaps in contemporary terms, to Taake and Watain as well, a furious assault that frequently boils over into nigh utter chaos. What I found surprising then, given that sonic profile, was how listenable this album was. The production here is stellar. The mixing providing enough balancing between instruments to discern melodies that are pushed to the background by design, and for anchoring riffs to have enough visceral intensity right up front to prevent this from just turning into a wall of noise. There are certainly some Alcest vibes happening on the rhythmic structure in “Sacrifice de Sang” however, and in that spirit Seth display an eyebrow raising amount of variance within their songwriting throughout this album. My favorite of these random moments are the interjections of surprisingly lush, pristine beauty, often tucked away as an end of song palette cleanser, such as the serene acoustic guitar/piano lullaby at the end of “Hymne au Vampire (Acte III)”. France has been full of surprises on the metal front lately, across the spectrum of heavy music, and it was nice to be reminded of that yet again.
10. Epica – Omega:
What a massive surprise this was. Epica, a band that I had come to ignore over the years because every attempt to get into them fell flat, released an album that I genuinely thought was stellar. After Therion, it’s the next best symphonic metal album of the year, and certainly the best Epica album to my ears anyway (I have no frame of reference on whether or not most Epica fans share this opinion by the way). I think I was somewhat in denial about how much I liked this album at first, thinking to myself “Ah I just like a few songs here and there”, but when a “few songs” wind up being most of the damn album… even I had to check myself and give the band it’s due. This album edged out yet another black metal record for the final spot on this list, and I seriously considered leaving this off until I let the stats speak for me and realized this was one of my most listened to albums of the year. Being a late February release, it was also one of the few bright spots from the first half of this year, and it was something I would return to often throughout the rest of 2021. I suspect that what Mark Jansen and Simone Simons and company stumbled upon here is addition by subtraction, because correct me if I’m wrong, but this feels like a leaner, less orchestrally driven Epica. These songs are very riff forward, vocal melody driven affairs, with the symphonic elements shading in the colors around them with restrained, often scaled back arrangements. I realize that’s a silly thing to say about what is still essentially a symphonic metal album, but in my memory, Epica used to run amok with their reliance on that aspect of their sound, to the detriment of their songwriting. Maybe I’ll revisit their discography to find that I’m wrong about that and it’s only that I’ve unlocked my brain into enjoying what has always been their sound, but I suspect that I’m right — that the band has shifted their approach here in subtle but important ways. These are tremendous songs, “Seal Of Solomon” is a perfect juxtaposition of brutal and cinematic elements; “Abyss Of Time” wisely rides one of the band’s strongest melodies in my memory; and “Rivers” is incredibly beautiful, a song that stopped me in my tracks. A start to finish satisfying traditional symphonic metal listen, it’s nice to have my own perceptions of a band changed all these years into their career.
Here we are again, at the end of yet another long yet passingly short year, and this time celebrating not only the recent 10th anniversary of The Metal Pigeon blog, but also this being the tenth time I’ve published a best of list on this site. Its surprising to me that even after all these years, I keep refining the process by which I make my picks for both this songs list and the upcoming albums list. It used to be a very stats heavy process back in the iTunes era, where I could track play counts on my computer and my devices with minute detail. That was a reasonable way to go for awhile, but looking back on some of those past lists, I can see where it was weighing earlier in the year release dates far too heavily. Conversely, the modern day stats are found in our Last.fm trackers and of course the Spotify Wrapped feature that we were all sharing on December 1st, are tracking everything we’re listening to, thus its a lot harder to break down solely metal stuff. So I’ve found that over the past few years, I’ve been moving in a more subjective, personalized process of putting these together… asking basic questions like what were the songs that I kept remembering or craving to hear again? What song made the biggest emotional impact on me? You get the idea. I will say this year’s best songs list was a little more difficult to put together than usual. I normally aim for a nominee list of twenty-five songs and cut them down to my final ten, but honestly, this year the chosen ten were so readily apparent that I had them written on my list first and really, really struggled to find any other nominees. I guess in that sense it was relatively easy then, ten confident picks for what it’s worth.
1. Therion – “Tuonela”(from the album Leviathan)
Perhaps the band’s most effective single release since the Gothic Kabbalah era, “Tuonela” was the cannon shotthat signaled the band had returned with open arms to the familiar symphonic metal stylings that Christofer Johnsson had devoted a career to pioneering. The inclusion of ex-Nightwish bassist Marco Hietala on co-lead vocals alongside the wonderful Taida Nazraić is the song’s biggest strength, his rough hewn, richly textured voice a perfect foil for her elegant, almost effortlessly charming vocals. One of Johnsson’s most underrated strengths is his ability to know exactly what voice he needs for a particular song, I can’t think of a moment where he’s missed the mark throughout the band’s discography. The heavy strings presence here recalls memories of the classically driven Vovin era, while the dueling co-lead male/female vocals remind me strongly of the Mats Levin/Snowy Shaw/Katarina Lilja vocal melody dominant era. This song is perfectly balanced between metallic and symphonic elements, has an unforgettable violin melody anchoring that magnificent chorus, and those trademark Therion choral vocals that lift you to the heavens. A gem.
2. Seven Spires – “In Sickness, In Health”(from the album Gods Of Debauchery)
Brimming with the same resonant emotional power and dramatic sweep that characterized so much of 2020’s album of the year winner Emerald Seas, “In Sickness, In Health” was neck and neck with “This God Is Dead” as the most nigh perfect moment of an otherwise imperfect album. From the sparse, drifting piano notes in the intro to Adrienne Cowan’s appropriately anguished vocals in the chorus to Jack Kosto’s channeling of Use Your Illusion-era Slash esque lead guitars, this was a power ballad with a capital P. As is becoming all too clear with each release, Adrienne has developed into one of metal’s finest lyricists. Her use of strong, clear imagery highlighted with often sharp juxtapositions helps to paint pictures that immediately place you in beautifully dramatic scenes or emotional states. As glorious as her and Roy Khan’s duet was, particularly in the final few minutes of “This God Is Dead”, this song was where I felt the emotional apex of the album resided and left me, as they say, shook.
3. Steven Wilson – “12 Things I Forgot” (from the album THE FUTURE BITES)
On an album that was as difficult for most of his fans to accept, let alone process and enjoy, “12 Things I Forgot” was the lone reminder that when it came to heartstring plucking, nostalgia soaked emotion, no one does it better than Steven Wilson. Wilson calls this the album’s Fleetwood Mac love song moment, but I took this song as somewhat of a direct lyrical response to fans who would were going to understandably balk at the strange direction Steven had taken his solo career over these past two releases — not quite a mea culpa, but more of a message of understanding. When he sings “Something I lost / And I know what it meant to you”, particularly over chiming acoustic guitars and a cascade of lush “ooohhs” and “aaaahhhs” backing vocal layers, it could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of his attempts at distancing himself from the progressive tag. The irony of course, apart from this song sounding like it could have been plucked from 2000’s Lightbulb Sun, is that he announced the reformation of modern day prog-princelings Porcupine Tree later in the year and has already released new music from the band. So maybe I was reading too much into it, but lyrically it works both ways and is undoubtedly one of his most gorgeous songs to date.
4. Brainstorm – “Glory Disappears” (from the album Wall Of Skulls)
The strongest Brainstorm song I’ve heard in ages off the strongest Brainstorm album in a decade, “Glory Disappears” is a monster of a song, built on an almost power ballad like build and release. Andy B Franck is seemingly ageless, and his vocals here are structured in an incredibly impactful way, starting with a deeper, lower register ala Geoff Tate and exploding with shocking force by the time the pre-chorus rolls around. The hook during the refrain elevates this into an all-time Brainstorm classic, Franck’s emotive tenor grabbing your wrist and refusing to let go. In a year where new power metal releases as a whole were mostly underwhelming, it was reassuring to hear one of the genre’s more underrated veterans capable of delivering such a heavy hitting jam so late in their career. Also in a year where my tastes really gravitated to two very polar musical opposites, it was nice to remember that sometimes all it took to get the Pigeon’s feathers ruffled were some meaty guitars, a thundering rhythm section, and a vocal melody that burned right into my brain.
5. Unto Others – “Heroin” (from the album Strength)
The opening track from the newly dubbed Unto Others’ (formerly Idle Hands) second full length album, “Heroin” is a bruiser of a song, an unexpected cobra strike of sudden aggression. Singer/guitarist Gabriel Franco delivers his most desperate, intense vocal performance to date, complete with a more anguished scream to punctuate his lines than he ever barked out on their debut Mana. The MVP of this cut though is lead guitarist Sebastian Silva, whose insistent leads create an uneasy atmosphere of tension and danger. His solo midway through is a seething coil of discordant melodies that’s as energizing as it is discombobulating, and after all the prettiness he displayed all through their debut it’s kind of shocking to hear him paint something decidedly ugly and mean. For his part, Franco’s central riff here is devastating, a full on metal attack that not only set the tone for what was a far darker and more dour album than it’s predecessor, but also changed the way we’ll be perceiving this band’s capabilities from here on out. As he said in the lyrics, they gave it to us straight.
6. Therion – “Die Wellen der Zeit”(from the album Leviathan)
It’s rare that two songs from the same album end up on this list, I believe it’s only happened once before (with Orphaned Land way back in 2013), but “Die Wellen der Zeit” was too special of a song to ignore here at the end of the year. A delicate yet stately cinematic ballad built on bright, bursting orchestral grandeur and Taida Nazraić’s incredibly passionate soprano vocals, Therion paint with a kaleidoscope of colors here. This song floored me from my first pass through the album, and it continued to resonate with me throughout the year, ending up on my Spotify “Your Top Songs 2021” playlist that’s like 90% K-Pop (it’s been a weird year). Therion has had a tradition of delivering really moving ballads from “Siren Of The Woods” to “Lemuria”, but they struck upon something new and fresh here — a piece of music that was entirely ethereal and sounded like it was perpetually floating. The choral vocals provided by the Israeli choir Hellscore do a massive amount of heavy lifting, but it’s undoubtedly a star turn for Nazraić, who wasn’t even on most of our radars before her appearance on this album.
7. Ulthima – “Black Swan” (from the album Symphony Of The Night)
The opening cut from the debut album of Ulthima, a Finnish-Mexican melodeath band with serious neoclassical tendencies ala Children Of Bodom and Norther, “Black Swan” is a microcosm of what makes Symphony Of The Night one of the year’s most compelling listens. Setting aside the seriously excellent, ultra melodic guitar leads from Ricardo Escobar, this song is equally indebted to keyboardist Niko Sutinen’s propelling melodies. There’s an unapologetically old school nature to the crunchy, dense texture of the riffing here that reminds me of classic melodeath ala the early aughts, and everything is mixed so tightly to give it that satisfyingly visceral snap you want this style to have. Vocalist Tuomas Antila’s slightly blackened vox reminding me so much of the tone used by Ville Viljanen (Mors Principium Est) is just the icing on the cake.
Making their first appearance on any of my best of lists, Epica’s sublime piano-led ballad “Rivers” was the most compelling moment from one of the year’s most addictive symphonic metal albums in Omega. Of course vocalist Simone Simons’s truly haunting performance is the draw here, and she’s always been one of my favorite guest vocalists in various spots across a plethora of bands throughout the years. She has one of those voices that seems to be tailor made for emotive, often sparsely dressed ballads, and shrewd songwriters know how to utilize her talent — case in point here with Mark Jansen penning a song devoid of unnecessary nods to heaviness barring a little crunchy guitar boost up towards the end. There’s just something indefinably magical about “Rivers”, and it was one of those songs that I couldn’t ignore. I’d find myself longing to hear it again and then would let the album keep playing only to remember that everything else was plenty good to boot.
9. Harakiri For The Sky – “Us Against December Skies” (from the album Mære)
Although I didn’t think Mære was able to get out from under the immense shadow cast by its predecessor in Arson, it was still capable of producing moments that were downright transcendent. Chief among these was the awesome, majestic “Us Against December Skies”, one of those eight minutes feels like four minutes time dilating epics. I don’t think I’ll truly ever be able to put into words why Harakiri is able to effectively channel such powerful emotion with such an unceasing wall of noise. It has a lot to do with the fantastic lead guitar melodies and simultaneously juxtaposing tempos — but what really got the lump caught in my throat here was the sequence starting at the 3:40 minute mark, where the band stop everything momentarily only to pull back the rubber band over an awesome, simple repeating riff figure, building up the tension, only to release it and let the chaos begin again.
10. Duskmourn – “Deathless” (from the album Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns)
Propulsive, meditative, and vicious all at once, Duskmourn’s “Deathless” was the sharpest thorn from an album that was rootsy and rustic, a fusion of earthy folk-metal and epic melodic death metal. I got major Summoning vibes from the woodwind instrumentation that careens over the tremolo and blastbeat intro passage. And the band channels major Insomnium vibes with those guitar leads at the six minute mark, a wash of color that is painted across the drab, brown-grey sky that predominates this track. Just like Harakiri above, Duskmourn seem to have an innate sense of when to scale everything back and just pound a quality riff to get you audibly centered and kick up your adrenaline level. There’s intelligence in the songwriting at work here, a knowing use of space to create ebbs and flows to break up the wall of sound, and in doing so, tell a story through brutal noise that is as gorgeous as it is melancholy.
Ten years ago, when I first started this blog, I had a boatload of ideas that I wanted to eventually get to after I had accumulated a decent amount of articles on the site, and found my writing voice so to speak. One of those ideas was to talk about my ults (to borrow a K-Pop term) — you know, my favorite records in this genre, that genre, of all time, you get the point. So to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this site, I’m finally (finally!) launching this in the form of The Metal Pigeon Essential Ten. The idea is simple. I’m presenting my picks for the ten essential albums that I feel best exemplify everything that I love about a certain subgenre. In other words, its by no means an attempt at an objective-ish list, but more a personal reflection of my own experience as a fan of this music. Of course we’re starting with power metal, because over the years I’ve written about my love for it likely more than anything else on this blog, and whittling what I love about this subgenre down to ten albums was not easy. But I like the number ten for lists, its easy to focus on for a reader, and for myself it forces me to make hard cuts and think about what I really have to include. These ten picks are sorted in alphabetical order by artist… hey look it was hard enough getting my list down to ten, don’t make me rank them. The prospect of finally getting around to this has been surprisingly rejuvenating, and a great excuse to go back and listen to albums that I haven’t heard in awhile but have meant a lot to me since I first did. Thanks for reading the blog any of these past ten years, can’t believe its been this long but I’m grateful it has.
Avantasia – The Metal Opera:
I think the first thing that someone might think when doing a quick scroll down through this list is “Where’s Helloween?”. Fair question. But I only have ten spots, and if I’m being honest with myself, as far as my personal experience with power metal goes, Helloween and Gamma Ray took a backseat to my rabid fanaticism for all things Tobias Sammet, particularly during that late 90s/early 00’s era. Released smack in the midst of the golden age of power metal™ (97-03 to be precise) in July 2001, the first Avantasia album was a monumental event in the power metal world. I had heard the single almost a year before in 2000 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown (a Cleveland area college radio show hosted by Dr. Metal whose show introduced me to a ton of power metal) when Tobias himself called in for an interview. He talked about the guest vocalists, people from bands that I was largely unfamiliar with, but he did winkingly confirm one significant guest he called “Ernie”, who Dr. Metal later clarified as Michael Kiske. My personal hype leading up to this album was massive, I made it a mission to grab as many albums as I could from the guest vocalist’s respective bands, in the process becoming fans of Angra, Stratovarius, Virgin Steele, Impellitteri, At Vance, and Within Temptation. That was a process that carried over into The Metal Opera Pt. II released a year later, but it was the debut that lit the match on what was already a flammable pyre of growing obsession over all things European power metal.
While the sequel was fantastic in its own right, the debut had the kind of crackling magic that all these years later refuses to diminish. From the melancholic majesty of “Farewell” to the glory-fist inspiring “Sign Of The Cross” to the now iconic “Reach Out For The Light” with Kiske’s glorious voice. What Tobias did on The Metal Opera was essentially build on what Kiske and Helloween had pioneered on the Keeper albums, only made bigger and wilder, with a cast of strikingly different vocalists that gave this straight ahead epic power metal a grandeur that made it sound larger than life. In writing this, I’ve realized that no amount of words can give voice to just how massive an impact this record was for me, it nearly rivaled having discovered Blind Guardian. For sure Keeper I/II belong on the list of the most influential and/or greatest power metal albums of all time, I totally agree with that both as a metal fan and a self appointed historian. But for as much as I love those records now, at the time I viewed them as heavy metal records ala Maiden… power metal really wasn’t a widespread term until 97 or so, and I always associated it with newer bands coming out of Europe. An artist like Tobias who wore his influences on his sleeves made it apparent just how far into the future Helloween’s influence has reached. But Avantasia’s The Metal Opera was a special moment in time for me, and I can’t look back on power metal history without it being a blinding beacon shining back at me.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall In Middle Earth:
The never ending debate among not only Blind Guardian fans, but power metal fans in general is Imaginations or Nightfall? Because though Blind Guardian does have other great records, those two albums in particular have come to define the what is quintessentially great about the band. I’ve always felt that there is no wrong answer between the two, because there have been moments where I’ve considered Imaginations and thought that note for note it could be a stronger listening experience. But the reason why I’m placing Nightfall on this list over it is because of just how much it intersects at two of my major interests, namely Tolkien and epic power metal. This isn’t breaking news to anyone by now, but I’m sure that was the reason a lot of people got into Blind Guardian. But back in the day when I discovered the band shortly after Nightfall’s release, it was a major revelation to younger me, a shocking intersection that seemed only hinted at with stuff like Metallica’s nods to Lovecraft and Maiden with… all their various literary references. With Nightfall, Blind Guardian created a soundtrack to Middle Earth that I never knew could possibly exist, painting rich, theatrical aural drama for important vignettes from The Silmarillion. At the time concept albums were still a relative rarity, but the bards didn’t try to shoehorn in an entire plot into their songs. They used the existing literature as a diving board from which to write from specific character perspectives, tackle particular moments from complex scenes and flesh them out with narration, context, and internal monologues. The intricacy of the musical arrangements mirrored the pulse of the narrative — militant grandeur on “Time Stands Still”, anguish and loss on “Nightfall”, forlorn melancholy on “The Eldar”. Particularly impressive for source material that read more like a biblical history rather than a typical fantasy adventure, Nightfall’s songs were intensely emotional, full of haunting imagery in its lyrics and utterly convincing passion from Hansi Kursch’s vocals.
On a side note, this album got me to finally tackle The Silmarillion, which I had previously disregarded as too difficult to read. All these years later, and it’s one of my most read books (if not the most read), with me doing yearly readings right around this time of year for quite a few years in a row. I love everything about it now, as a flawed but still rather perfect piece of literature, and it took Nightfall to get me to appreciate that. I also still consider the album to be one of the finest storytelling moments in power metal, nearly equaled only by Kamelot’s Epica, together both albums illuminating a dearth of competition that is oftentimes disappointing to consider. It has also, after what has to be in the thousands of listens after all these years, still retained the same vibrancy and freshness that it did when I first heard it. Honestly I can’t even say that about a few old classic Maiden albums, and they’re my favorite band. Andre Olbrich’s leads in “Mirror Mirror” still get my adrenaline pumping even if I’m sitting in my desk chair, Hansi’s screamed “Fear my curse!” on “Noldor” still raises the hair on my arms, and the chorus of “Into The Storm” is still the most spirited, spitting defiance singalong moment, even if I’m by myself in the car. So again, you might think Imaginations deserves to be here, and I couldn’t fault you for it, but Nightfall is iconic to me, that cover art, the depth of what the band accomplished here — it’s a power metal essential, even if you tend to skip the interludes.
Edguy – Mandrake:
It’s a testament to Tobias Sammet’s impact on my power metal fandom that he’s landed on this essentials list twice, and you could say 2001 was a great year for him on an artistic level. Just over two months after he dropped The Metal Opera, Tobias delivered Edguy’s fifth and finest album in Mandrake, the point where the band’s sound was still cut from the classic Helloween inspired power metal cloth of 1999’s Theater Of Salvation, but tempered with an arena ready production complete with fuller, deeper guitar tones and a thicker bottom end. These sonic adjustments were paired with his most going for the jugular approach to songwriting yet, delivering bangers like “Golden Dawn” and the bruisingly heavy “Nailed To The Wheel”. An epic opener like “Tears Of A Mandrake” and the ultra-catchy “All The Clowns” blossomed into iconic power metal classics. Even an adventurous set piece like “The Pharaoh” saw Tobias growing into a confident, accomplished craftsman, capable of holding our attention for ten minute chunks, layering compelling sequences one after another, foreshadowing some of the great epics he’d deliver throughout his career afterwards. He also brought Edguy right up to the edge of a more AOR steeped approach, with “Painting On The Wall” being a seminal moment in their career — still power metal in spirit but dressed up in Magnum and Europe outerwear. And on an album so leaden with somber toned material (despite the major key choruses, this was a much darker album than Theater was or even The Hellfire Club after it) Tobias snuck in a satisfying bit of Helloween inspired cheek in “Save Us Now”, the type of thing that in lesser hands would stick out terribly. Even the ballad here, long a bane of many a power metal fan, “Wash Away The Poison” saw him still writing with that traditional power metal frame of mind, preferring lyrics about self-realization and discovery over the romantic overtures that would come later.
In summation, Mandrake was the first fully realized culmination of Tobias Sammet as one of the genre’s foremost songwriters. In a career full of great songs before and after, it was track for track his strongest overall effort, and it was also in so many ways the swansong of his power metal era too. The hard rock influences came to the forefront one album later and never really left, even in latter day Avantasia where classic power metal only rears it’s head in fits and spurts. I know for my part, that’s a big reason why I tend to view 2003 as a closing of the classic power metal era, because when you have one of the heavy hitters in a songwriting sense drifting away from that classic style, it’s a signal that something has ended, or at the very least, changed irreparably. Recently on albums like Ghostlights and Moonglow, Sammet has shown glimpses and flashes of the return of some classic power metal trappings of the Mandrake era, but hardly anything full on or overtly Helloween attuned like Mandrake was. Of course that doesn’t mean that they’re inherently inferior, I think we’ve all grown accustomed to the change that’s occurred to Tobias’ songwriting approach over the years. It’s entirely possible that he felt Mandrake was as far as he could go in the classic power metal mode and still write compelling music. I think it’s also why I regard this album with a tinge of sadness, because despite it’s magic, it was the end of something special instead of the beginning.
Dragonforce – Sonic Firestorm:
Many if asked which was the most impactful Dragonforce album to date would cite either the band’s debut Valley Of The Damned or the truckload selling Inhuman Rampage with it’s improbable Billboard Hot 100 hit “Through The Fire And The Flames”. I hate dating myself here, but I very much remember listening to the band when they were known as Dragonheart with their demo on the ancient version of mp3.com. It created a stir not only for the awesome songs and dizzying guitarwork, but for the ease of which word of mouth spread thanks to it’s digital format. It was really the first time I remember seeing a band blow up thanks to their music being online, and they parlayed that into an actual record deal and released a debut that was pretty strong. The thing we forget about that album though is that the band hadn’t yet introduced the sonic elements that would rock the world three years later on Inhuman Rampage and er… Guitar Hero. Those elements would be introduced on their sophomore album, the utterly inspired, damn near perfect yet tragically overlooked Sonic Firestorm. Hypersonic riffing, wildly complex extended guitar solo passages, and aggressive black metal-esque blast beats spearheading an absolute battery of percussion courtesy of former Bal-Sagoth drummer Dave Mackintosh. Where Valley was sonically hampered by a slightly muddy production, Sonic Firestorm sounded crisp and clean, a textural facet of the recording that helped its various elements have a visceral impact. Upon release the band was describing this album as “extreme power metal”, and despite that being a bit of cheeky marketing, it was also kinda true, Sonic Firestorm saw them pushing the boundaries of what power metal was expected to sound like.
Of course, the songs were what really mattered, and Sam Totman delivered some of his most inspired songwriting ever with key assists from fellow guitarist Herman Li and keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov. They burst out the gates with “My Spirit Will Go On”, one of the greatest opening cannon shots in power metal history, a song that perfectly married epic ambition and length to an unforgettable hook and iconic lead guitar melody. It’s the first in a salvo of absolute bangers, followed by the aptly named “Fury Of The Storm”, one of vocalist ZP Theart’s best individual moments — he had a knack of sounding indefatigable even on lengthy vocal sequences at higher registers. My personal favorite might still be “Fields Of Despair” however, where the melancholic undertones of the key change during the chorus give the song an emotional weight that lives up to the song title. People were captivated by the band’s razzle dazzle (rightfully so), but I often found that their songwriting had moments of poignancy and complexity, tempered of course by the fact that the lyrics were essentially syllabically oriented vocal filler (not a criticism mind you, think of it as grim vocals are to black metal — texture!) This was seven breathtakingly paced tracks with the right mix of aggression and melodic nuance with satisfyingly hooky riffs and melodies, and one pretty piano based ballad that sounded divine on afternoon drives with the sun setting through your windshield. Dragonforce would make strong records long after this, deliver some incredible tunes here and there, but they never sounded as hyper focused as they did here.
Falconer – Falconer:
Rising from the ashes of folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, Sweden’s Falconer released their self-titled debut in 2001 just as folk-metal had found its footing, and smack in the midst of the golden era of power metal™, and their rootsy, gritty, often medieval music inspired sound fused the two subgenres together to create something new. One could argue that they were building on the foundations created by England’s Skyclad, but there was a distinct Scandinavian-esque quality to Stefen Weinerhall’s songwriting, both in Mithotyn and in Falconer. His focus was on incredibly rich melodies as a counterpoint to a startling dose of heavy riffage and aggressive, at times extreme metal inspired percussion. The melodies found their way through fluid lead patterns and glorious soloing of course, but also through the unorthodox vocalist the band had stumbled onto in Mathias Blad. He had no metal nor rock background, being a stage actor by trade in Sweden who had spent time studying in England, and his approach on record reinforced that. Blad certainly sang for Falconer with passion, but he didn’t project his voice in the way a metal singer would, with an increase of power or volume — his voice was naturally delivered, without exaggeration or projecting a “metal” attitude, as if he was simply on a theater stage somewhere. On Falconer, he was a revelation, carrying the narrative weight of Stefan’s lyrics and songwriting through sheer talent alone, his baritone deep and sonorous, and his phrasing crystal clear and fluid. I remember the exact moment I heard him for the first time on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown, stunned that a singer fronting a power metal band could sound so different from what was expected, yet fit so perfectly within the context of the band’s music.
The compositions on this album were magical, the kind of stuff that seemed to seep in from another world far removed from our mundane reality. To this day I can’t tell you what exactly Mathias is singing about in “Mindtraveller”, but I damn well feel that song in my gut, it’s been an all-time classic for me (and many others I’m sure), and among friends of mine, the term mindtraveller has become both an adjective and a noun. The looser, more brightly uptempo songs were loaded with ear candy; the layered “woooaaahhs” in “Royal Galley”; that fat bass line laid down by Weinerhall that anchors “Lord Of The Blacksmiths” into an unexpected but awesomely funky groove (only surpassed by the rings of a hammer striking hot iron!); and the subtle backing vocals by Ulrika Olausson on the ethereally beautiful “Wings Of Serenity” drip melancholy all over the song’s bridge sequence. I was always deeply impressed with just how vicious and batteringly heavy Falconer could sound. The sheer assault that occurs upon the opening instrumental bars of “Upon The Grave Of Guilt” could pass for the intro to a blackened folk metal tune before Mathias’ sweeps in. They’d surpass that level of heaviness on later songs such as “Pale Light Of A Silver Moon” off Among Beggars And Thieves, and entire albums like Armod, but they didn’t have to work their way up there or slowly introduce these elements to their sound over time. Album one, song one, and we were shown that Falconer would make a career of being beautifully mystical, often elegantly pretty, and also downright mean and punishing. The band would deliver other incredible records… one could make a case for Chapters From A Vale Forlorn being on this list, but the debut was so unexpected and made such a deep impression on me. They released their swansong last year, a capstone on a magnificent career, and went their separate ways — sadly still underrated and overlooked.
Hammerfall – Glory To The Brave:
Of course this was going to be here, not only for the obvious reasons that it was the album that kickstarted power metal as a recognized genre in earnest back in 1997 (remember friends, power metal as a term wasn’t really utilized as we know it today back when the Keeper records were released), but also for the simple reason that this album flat out rocks. Unlike Dragonforce six years later, who’d merge power metal’s Helloween engineered template with elements of speed and extreme metal, Hammerfall’s birth was a firmly resolute nod to the traditional heavy metal of the past, albeit trading in the screaming, rougher vocals of legends like Halford and Dickinson for the cleaner tone and delivery of Joacim Cans. It’s success across continental Europe opened doors for so many other bands to get signed and recognized, but unto itself, Glory To The Brave was a bracing, spectacular celebration of everything that made heavy metal great. I’ve always felt strongly that one of the keys to what made Hammerfall’s first two albums incredible was the relatively hidden influence of one Jesper Stromblad, who contributes here as a songwriter. He was at the peak of his riff writing powers during this era, having knocked out In Flames’ The Jester Race a year before, Whoracle in this same year, and Colony two years later. His influence is heard in the sheer melodeath-ian density of the riffs heard across this album, despite him not playing on the album. Guitarist Oskar Dronjak had been bandmates with Stromblad in Ceremonial Oath, and you get the feeling that both of their extreme metal roots crept into the approach towards Hammerfall — in the writing process those riffs were molded to be compact and intense, and it showed through in Dronjak’s and then In Flames guitarist Glenn Ljungström’s performances on the album. They’d shake this melodeath influence three years later on Renegade, shifting to a more permanent Priest/Helloween mix, and thus would never recapture the magic found on Glory To The Brave or its sequel Legacy Of Kings.
Then there’s just the full on triumph and glory claw inducing splendor of these songs; “The Dragon Lies Bleeding” is built on one of the most insistent and urgent power metal riffs of all time, with Cans delivering an emphatic and powerful vocal performance; and the album is bookended by its polar opposite, the beautiful power ballad title track with its echoing leads, and confidently articulate acoustic guitars reminiscent of the Scorpions’ finest ballads. It’s a toss up as to whether “Hammerfall” or “Stone Cold” is the most rockin’ cut here, the latter built on a Priest-ian attack and possessing an understated menace in it’s steady march whereas the former is a Helloween inspired banger that shows off the band’s melodicism in sharply vibrant ways. I loved the band’s audaciousness too, the pride of being a metal band playing metal tunes that was exemplified in “The Metal Age”, whose admittedly silly lyrics were still the kind of Manowar-ism that I felt an affinity towards. Even a song ostensibly about the Crusades such as “Steel Meets Steel” could be parlayed into a metal anthem, and there was something comforting about being a fan of such deeply uncool music yet hearing the band themselves proclaim it’s power as something righteous and worthy to be proud of. Such sentiments seem gauche in 2021, but they kinda mattered in the late 90s/early 00s. That kind of fervent belief made a dreamy ballad like “I Believe” ache with a resonance that lesser bands couldn’t manage. The capper on this excellent album was the inclusion of their awesome Warlord cover in “Child Of The Damned”, a direct line to one of the subgenre’s USPM grandfathers from the early 80s. It was an unapologetic nod to the past that was only fitting for an album that revived not only a sound, but a feeling.
Kamelot – Epica:
A landmark in power metal for its elevation of storytelling, lyrical diction, and songwriting, Kamelot’s Epica was part one of a two album long exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, the tragic German play. Vocalist Roy Khan and founding guitarist Thomas Youngblood created their own storyline and characters closely resembling those in the original, and with wiggle room for artistic liberties. There are a lot of fans who will argue in favor of The Black Halo being more deserving of praise in a head to head comparison, and while I do love that album and it’s overall darker atmosphere, Epica has always sounded sharper to me from a songwriting perspective. By this point in Khan’s tenure with the band, he had already meshed with Youngblood as a major songwriting contributor and had put his stamp on two bonafide power metal classics in The Fourth Legacy and Karma. While his lyric writing and vocal performances on those albums were turning heads and keeping his name at the forefront of many power metal fans minds, Epica was his and the band’s most astonishing masterwork. Getting to inhabit a character for an entire album, Khan’s imagination ran wild and he managed to pen most of the lyrics and narrative storyboarding before the music was composed. This meant the songs took on even more of a vocal melody driven direction than before, the music often reactive to Khan’s phrasing and tempo choices, such as on the slow build of “The Edge Of Paradise” where Youngblood’s guitar is solely responsive to Khan’s vocal line. Song structures were often inventive out of narrative necessity, something that Khan made work due to crafting impeccable vocal melodies to keep one’s attention fixed while the Miro engineered symphonic elements (the “Rodenburg Symphony Orchestra”!), Gregorian chants, choir vocals, and guest lead vocals fluttered around or darted in and out. Just like Blind Guardian’s Nightfall, Khan and Youngblood had the benefit of having the source material available in literary form as a reference for both themselves and listeners, and as a result the songwriting was freed of the burden of exposition.
On the brilliant “Lost & Damned”, an accordion sways in a Parisian tango during the verses in a sad, sympathetic melody as Khan’s character says goodbye to the love of his life, a surprising choice that works so well it’s one of the album’s finest moments. The ballads were also magnificently constructed, “Wander” sounding warmly like the flower-scented, dewy air its lyrics spoke of, all romance and mystery; while “On The Coldest Winter Night” sounds like snowfall and warm fires, befitting the emotional scene that’s occurring between the two characters Ariel and Helena. I’ve written about Khan’s poetic lyrical diction at length, but its worth reiterating here that his way with words is one of the reasons this album is on this list. Khan was able to inhabit his characters’ inner monologues, craft elegant dialogue and paint his scenes with richly evocative imagery that brought this storyline to life and made you care about the characters. There was a visceral quality to a line such as “meet me by the wishing well / in cover of the moon”, a lyric that paints a scene as clearly as a sentence in a fantasy novel. But it wasn’t all extravagant instrumentation and romantic balladry, Kamelot brought thrilling majesty to the fore in the straight-ahead power metal of “Farewell”, where Khan married melancholy to gritty determination and crafted a chorus made of steel. And “Center Of The Universe” was peak classic era Kamelot at it’s finest, a dynamic masterpiece with alternating tempos and an ascending buildup that exploded in a euphoric, skyward reaching refrain, cut through with a mid-song bridge with Mari Youngblood on vocals that elevated everything to high drama. Khan would of course leave Kamelot a few albums later, and the band would never be the same, but they had a run there with four classic albums in a row with him at the helm and this was undoubtedly the apex.
Power Quest – Neverworld:
What do we love about power metal? There has to be more to it than the surface level stuff like catchy tunes, epic melodies, soaring vocals and bursting guitar solos. Underneath all of that wizardry is an emotional pulse behind a lot of this music, at least it’s always been that way for me. At it’s best, it can be mental armor to help you deal with the shrapnel that life sometimes explodes at you, as I found out first hand last year when the pandemic hit and everything changed and I found myself cobbling together the massive anti-anxiety power metal playlist on Spotify that kinda saved me all those weeks when I was worried about anything and everything. Power Quest has always been one of those bands who I’ve turned to for comfort listening whenever I needed a bit of spirit lifting, and truth is that I could make a personal case for their incredible Master Of Illusion album to grace this list as well. But those in the know understand that the band’s absolutely undeniable masterpiece is 2004’s Neverworld. It’s cohesive sound is perhaps the finest encapsulation of the genre’s ability to radiate warmth and indefatigable optimism, not only as an act of defiance, but as an affirmation of life itself. There are loads of power metal bands that write lyrics that aim to express something in that vein, but few that manage to sound convincingly bright, ethereal, and determined as Steve Williams and company did here. Power metal artists that play with this kind of palette, like PQ’s contemporaries in Freedom Call, tend to get criticized for the lightness of their approach, but I’ve always thought of it as extremity in reverse, pushing the sound of metal in the opposite direction of say black metal while still retaining undeniably metallic sonic elements. Much of that comes from Steve’s heavy keyboard synths, sweet and syrupy and clearly inspired by the classic early 80s tones heard on Van Halen’s 1984 and classic AOR bands of that era. He steeped that influence into the classic power metal mold ala Helloween and found the voice that seemed to just barely elude him on their debut.
I remember listening to this album as I commuted to university, getting up at 6am just to take the long route across the city to dodge traffic, sitting in my car in the empty parking lot while listening to “Temple Of Fire” to wake up and motivate myself to face being there all day until long after dark. I’d take long de-stressing drives after work while blasting the album start to finish, marveling at how it seemed made of all razor sharp edges and some of the most glorious power metal guitar ever courtesy of the ever underrated Andrea Martongelli. And vocalist Alessio Garavello, then just a new found wunderkind from Italy, delivered one of the most fired up, intensely acrobatic vocal performances heard on any power metal album ever, full of personality and as I’ve always described it, perfectly imperfect approaches to cadence and delivery. Beyond the performances however, at it’s core it was the songwriting that made Neverworld special. A song such as “When I’m Gone” was painted with wistful sunset sky melancholia, and it’s gentle, innocent melody legitimately made you ache. The uplifting chorus outro sequences in “Into The Light” were seemingly powered by sunlight, and the stormy, dramatic buildups in the epic “Lost Without You” were made buoyant by layers of brilliant harmony vocals. And my favorite cut, “Edge Of Time”, one of the most perfect power metal songs ever written, with it’s iconic opening keyboard intro and rockin’ Scorpions-esque riff, and as gloriously powerful a chorus as can be imagined. Steve wrote songs on this album that were dewy eyed and hopeful, at once preciously fragile and unyieldingly strong, and full of an almost spiritual, life affirming breath that you’d gulp in like your life depended on it.
Sonata Arctica – Silence:
There’s an argument to be made that it’s a coin flip between this or Glory To The Brave as the greatest power metal debut album of all time, as both are astonishing classics in their own right on a musical level. But I’ll give the edge to Sonata Arctica, because what they managed on Silence went beyond Hammerfall’s spirited resurrection of traditional heavy metal, with the Finns pushing the genre into an emotional territory not yet explored by any power metal band. They took the sonic template created by their fellow countrymen and power metal pioneers in Stratovarius, and through it further explored the inward facing lyrics that Helloween only scratched the surface of. Vocalist and songwriter Tony Kakko favored storytelling through vignettes, often ones that were tragically romantic or explored even darker emotions like isolation or loneliness. Fantasy themes could be interwoven in his songs or discarded entirely for a more realistic setting, Kakko seemed unmoored from power metal’s tropes, often penning lyrics that used unorthodox diction for the genre. I suspect it was no coincidence that he and Tuomas Holopainen were friends and were encouraging each other in their musical pursuits, particularly around this era, and that we’d hear a similar lyrical shift in Nightwish’s music away from fantasy themes to deeply personal topics. In retrospect, given what we now know about the introspective music of Finnish mainstays like Amorphis and Insomnium, it seems obvious to say that it must be a “Finnish thing”. Yet at the time, Stratovarius and Hanoi Rocks was really the only thing the world knew about metal from Finland, and I remember being unable to pinpoint and articulate why Silence and it’s follow-up Ecliptica felt so different from anything else out there (in fact, I think it took discovering Sentenced shortly afterwards for me to begin to realize what made the Finns tick). Power metal had developed as music that was bombastic, defiant, and at times uncomfortably macho, and here was a band who turned that attitude on it’s head — introducing vulnerability, sensitivity, and uncertainty while marrying it to a sound that still soared despite it all.
I think we also now realize in retrospect that guitarist Jani Liimatainen was the perfect foil to Tony’s unorthodox approach to power metal songwriting, particularly in light of his work in Cain’s Offering and more recently Dark Element. His razor sharp riffs and classically inclined melodic sensibilities were the guide rails that kept these songs firmly planted in Timo Tolkki inspired power metal territory. We’ve heard where Tony has taken the band’s sound in a post-Liimatainen era, and while modern day Sonata Arctica still attempts to maintain links to it’s power metal heritage, it’s clear they’ve drifted away from it as a whole. But here on Ecliptica, these roots were strong, and on classics like the face melting “Blank File” and “UnOpened”, Jani’s driving attack kept Tony (who was handling keyboards back then, remember?!) in a more Jens Johansson-esque role as a keyboardist, sticking to tried and true Malmsteen derived classical guitar/keyboard duo formulas. On more mid-tempo paced cuts such as “My Land”, keyboards were creatively used as a rhythmic device with Jani’s guitar coming in as a counterpoint, creating an effect that conjured up wild, barely restrained passion. The most emotional moments on the album however were found in the far more introspective songs; the aching, forlorn “Replica” where Tony spoke about an “empty shell inside of me”; or the uptempo “Kingdom For A Heart” with possibly the most dramatic reaction to heartbreak ever realized in song lyrics. On the bonus version we were treated to one of the band’s finest songs, “Mary-Lou”, an achingly beautiful sad song made sadder on the acoustic version that was released on the Orientation EP a year later. The gem of all gems here is of course “Full Moon”, one of the greatest power metal songs ever written, no explanation needed. I’ll never forget seeing the band live a few years back, when a pair of arms crossed tattooed guys who had been watching the show stoically all night finally broke out in a euphoric sing-along to this song during the encore. You couldn’t write a better endorsement.
Tad Morose – Modus Vivendi:
Often overlooked and sometimes forgotten, Tad Morose’s Modus Vivendi deserves to be regarded as one of the genre’s masterworks. Eschewing shimmering melodies for crushing Nevermore-ian heaviness, Modus Vivendi worked not only for the straight ahead chugging dual guitar attack of Christer Andersson and Daniel Olsson, but for the majestic, towering vocal performance of Urban Breed. He had been with the band for a handful of albums before this one, but this was where he really demonstrated why he should be in any conversation for greatest power metal vocalists. His role as the narrator of a daunting conversation about death on “Afraid To Die” was not only a stunning display of his mastery as a lyricist, but also for his dramatic vocal choices — where to add emphasis, how to phrase each line, the way he’d bend specific words and in doing so give them extra power. His staggering performance on “No Mercy” made it an all-time classic, his vocal on the chorus coming at you like Mike Tyson’s right uppercut, pure intensity and heavy metal fury. His no holds barred approach to the vocals was how it had to be. How else to go blow for blow with the muscled up heavy metal attack loaded into every riff and in the pounding aggression of the rhythm section. Andersson and company were certainly creating power metal, these were richly melodic songs with mostly soaring hooks, but they tempered them with elements of doom metal to darken the overall tone and slow down the pacing. And the band’s penchant for progressive metal was infused throughout their approach to displaying their more technical leaning tendencies in fits and bursts, still allowing the trad metal approach to steer the songwriting around any self-indulgent potholes.
There was also songwriting depth involved here. Nothing revolutionary, but just a sustained implementation of sheer creativity in how these songs were constructed. Take the Egyptian motifs that run throughout “When The Spirit Rules World”, how they seem to be leading the song in a certain direction only for the band to abruptly switch gears for the starkly Queensryche-ian refrain. And then there’s the lumbering thick boy in “Cyberdome”, built on as menacing a groove based riff as you’ll hear in power metal, where the band willingly halts its strut by coming to a near standstill on the utterly spartan pre-chorus. It’s so rare to hear a band execute risky ideas like these and somehow make them seem as part of the masterplan all along. Even on relatively straightforward cuts like “Anubis” and “Take On The World”, the band doesn’t take the easy route, loading its verses with shifting, alternating riff sequences and aggression levels, the rhythm section working overtime to keep you guessing. This album was Urban’s swan song with the band, he’d move onto Bloodbound for a spell and do really great work with them. For the band, it took them a decade to recover and come back with new music, and despite having a fairly good singer in Ronny Hemlin onboard, they haven’t come close to the greatness they stumbled onto here. There’s nothing flashy about Modus Vivendi, but that’s its centralized strength — its perfectly crafted from start to finish, one of the most viscerally satisfying power metal albums you could imagine.
Back in the spring, despite the presence of a few standout records that made a big impact on me, I felt like I was in a rut with metal for the first time in years. It kinda freaked me out a bit, and one thing led to another and I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of an entirely unexpected genre of music that I had previously dismissed as either not for me, or worse, as disposable (wrong on both accounts!). The last time I was burned out on metal (over a decade ago if memory serves), I binged hard on alternative country like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, The Jayhawks, Calexico, Cowboy Junkies, etc. for months and months. When I had my fill, I came back to metal with a newfound appreciation for all things heavy, as well as an armful of fantastic new non-metal music I could return to when the mood struck (and an appreciation for a genre I didn’t know I’d enjoy). I still listen to those artists/records today, albeit not at binge worthy levels. This time around, I found myself back in early May curiously stumbling into the world of K-Pop in earnest, my only real experience with it beforehand limited to listening to a few Blackpink songs here and there.
I’ve always been a fan of hooky melody soaked, unique pop music, but lately I had found that I was unable to find newer (Western) pop artists whose music was engaging enough to me. I guess it was a combination of wanting newer music in this vein plus needing a metal break that prompted me to check out a recommended YouTube video for a R&B K-Pop group called Mamamoo doing a medley of their songs in a studio — and that did it, I had to find out more. After binging on Mamamoo’s discography in Spotify, I found a few other metal fans with K-Pop interests and they pointed me towards an armful of recommendations. Four months later, and I can have conversations about IU, Red Velvet, f(x), Wonder Girls, Dreamcatcher, (G)I-DLE, Sunmi, Punch, Infinite, etc., etc. Of course they got the Pigeon treatment, that being a deep dive into discographies and biographies in the same manner through which I know way too much about Iron Maiden and Therion, and can recite the chart positions of all of Queensryche’s albums from 83-97. I discovered that while there’s a fair share of disposable pap in K-Pop (same as there is in Western pop), there’s also artists like the ones I mentioned above that are barreling out the gates with some of the most sophisticated, complex, and genre bending pop music I’ve ever heard.
Then there’s the weird world of all the “content” that goes with it, in the form of variety shows, behind the scenes, vlogs, travel documentaries (yes), and anything else you could think of. I say weird because not even the biggest Western pop artists provide their fans anything close to the staggering amount of access that K-Pop does by seemingly the default standard operating procedure. From seeing members of these groups battle against actors and actresses on a show like Battle Trip (where audiences vote on which team had the best vacation experience, which is of course documented on film); to the truly surreal Secret Unnie (where a younger star is paired with an older star for twenty-four hours in an attempt to form a lasting “unnie-dongsaeng” bond. Its all wild and bewildering stuff to behold. So while immersing myself in this world, I kept hold of a tether to metal, making time for standout moments like the recent Helloween reunion album and a handful of other interesting things worth investigating. One of the side effects of listening to nonstop pop music was that in August I found myself having days where I craved heaviness and aggression. To quote a tweet by @riffspreader, “Death metal hits different when you haven’t listened to anything heavy in 6 months. Damn!”.
He’s right about that, and I was reminded of that when I went to my first live show since October of 2019 in the middle of August to see Goatwhore with Necrofier and Frozen Soul. It was a fantastic, cathartic, and downright healing experience to not only see and hear live metal again, but to feel it’s visceral impact via the vibrations of battering kickdrums in one’s ribcage and to feel the vibrations underneath as riffs reverberated around the room and people slipped on beer in the circle pit next to you. Frozen Soul really stood out that night, their frontman Chad Green pounding the stage with his round-based mic stand for punctuating emphasis as the band delivered an inspired performance worthy enough to be compared to Obituary for live death metal excellence. I couldn’t stop listening to their 2021 Crypt Of Ice record after that gig, and really all throughout August I’ve found myself back in the saddle metal-wise with an armload of new music that I’m genuinely excited about and hooked on.
So in concluding this rather self-indulgent essay, this time around I’m taking a minor break from reviewing what I’ve been listening to lately. Instead just consider the records below as my honest recommendations instead (with a helpful YouTube video provided!), a whole cornucopia of metal from varying subgenres that brought me back into the fold after months and months of listening to some pretty awesome shimmery pop music (seriously, if you want to talk about K-Pop hit me up, I have many opinions!).
Operus – Score Of Nightmares:
I’m glad I somewhat accidentally stumbled onto these guys, because this was a release from 2020 that I genuinely missed anyone talking about for the last year until very recently. This band is conjuring up music that sounds like someone smashed up some Kamelot with Carach Angren, resulting in a very theatrical, wildly musical take on progressive power metal. The singer here, David Michael Moote, is a musical theater actor for his day job, bringing to mind one Mathias Blad of Falconer and I can actually hear minor similarities in how they both approach their role singing for a metal band. Moote does seem far more ingrained with metal music than Blad ever did (not a knock on Blad mind you, that was part of his charm), because he absolutely tears it up on some of these songs with the kind of full on power metal fury that they deserve. What’s really keeping me coming back however is the sheer musicality flowing through all these songs — the odd use of violins in place of guitars for solos, the inventive rhythmic approaches taken on many of the songs, and just the sense that this music sounds like it was meant to be acted out on stage far more than just your typical power metal album.
Frozen Soul – Crypt Of Ice:
So I mentioned above in the intro essay a little about Frozen Soul’s set that I caught back in mid-August here in Houston, namely, that they were awesome, and they made me remember in an instant everything that is good and pure about seeing live music (particularly feel it in your chest metal shows). But its worth mentioning that Crypt of Ice is as compelling a death metal album as I’ve heard in ages, it’s like I’m transported back to the mid-90s in that era before death metal went through it’s era of being largely over technical or worse, over produced. This album just has the right amount of Wendy’s burger wrapper grease on a Beavis and Butthead t-shirt vibes — the sound of a band who care as much about headbanging worthy passages as they do about sounding broo-tal. All these years in, I still can’t quite pinpoint what separates a death metal album that captures my attention like this from the rest of them, but I suspect its that magical “it” factor that makes me catch some of those same feelings I had when I was a teenager and all of this sounded new to me. I guess I’m asking for music that doesn’t sound nostalgic but makes me feel nostalgic? Is that a thing?
Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:
Oh man I can’t emphasize how much I love this record, in all its late-90s Finnish melo-death referencing vibes via these melodies and decadent guitar leads. The title of this debut album isn’t a coincidence either, Ulthima admit to being Castlevania fans, and surely I’m correct in suspecting that they’re influenced by classic videogame scores ala Castlevania, even if its in drips and drops. That means that I wasn’t clonked over the head with melodies that reminded me of the actual soundtrack to that famed game, but some of the melodies that are present certainly wouldn’t sound out of place on said soundtrack either. If you have no idea what I’m talking about its fine because this is just a really fantastic melodeath album that recalls the genre’s more consistent, peak happiness creating era of yore. I just looked them up on Metallum and am not surprised to find they’re actually a Finnish based band (Finnish-Mexican to be exact), which makes sense given the serious Bodom and Norther vibes on some of these songs. And I love that album art… serious Andreas Marschall concept vibes there.
Silver Talon – Decadence and Decay:
Yet another band impressing with their debut record, Silver Talon was introduced to me on the last MSRcast episode (a good one, check it out!) and I’ve been enjoying this record ever since. It’s just that perfect blend of aggressive trad-metal with Virgin Steel vocal splashes mixed with some more extreme metal sonics ala thrash metal rhythmic attacks. I’ve been told that their 2018 EP Becoming A Demon was superior, and when I checked that release out on Metallum it became apparent that this band was basically formed out of the ashes of Spellcaster, and sure enough, I get major Spellcaster vibes on that EP so maybe that’s what people were responding to? And to be fair, their sound hasn’t changed that much on this new one, but that’s actually a good thing, and to my ears this album feels like a more realized vision of their sound. But lets not overly complicate things, this is a strong classic sounding trad-metal album that deserves checking out.
Vexillum – When Good Men Go To War:
Vexillum is one of those bands that I was introduced to awhile back but had kinda forgotten in the interim — namely their 2015 album Unum had a fantastic guest appearance on it by one Hansi Kursch, and where Hansi goes I go. I was impressed with that song and the rest of that album, which had two other strong guest appearance moments with Chris Bay and Mark Boals. Vexillum’s core sound reminds me a lot of Elvenking, only less pop-punk tinged in the vocals and with a far more weighty emphasis on a German power metal influence with riffs that emulate early Blind Guardian or Gamma Ray. I guess I’ll give myself a pass on forgetting about them since it has been six years since that record, but apparently worth the wait because I’ve come to love this album. It’s been that fittingly energetic and jaunty end of summer/prelude to fall soundtrack that has me thinking about the upcoming renaissance festival and cool winds and not sweating when walking outside. I was listening to this while ordering a certain fall-associated drink at the Starbucks drive-thru the other week and it was kinda stormy out with the wind blowing slightly “cool” for late August, and woo! What a feeling!
Duskmourn – Fallen Kings And Rusted Crowns:
There’s always one per year, that out of nowhere left hook of awesomeness that comes from the inky blackness to clock you across the jowl and leave you dazed and drooling. The long suffering George from our sister podcast Metal Geeks’ infamous segment “George Hates Metal” was responsible for this recommendation (which begs the question, does he really hate metal?), and this is the first recommendation from him that I will heartily back and endorse as a must listen. These guys are a duo from Jersey and Pennsylvania (…eh why not?), and this is their third independent album — the staggering quality of this record from start to finish prompting the question of “why aren’t these guys signed?”. It does occur to me though that perhaps they’re satisfied with being independent; because even though metal labels in the modern era aren’t known for putting in their two cents on creative decisions all too often nor applying pressure for a band to lean in a certain creative direction, being on a label does come with pressures all the same. Duskmourn have their Bandcamp and a pretty terrific merch selection on their Big Cartel band store. The first night we discussed them while recording the podcast, I was so impressed with their music and that spectacular logo that I was compelled to order a shirt then and there (it arrived and its awesome btw). Who needs a label?
Insomnium – The Antagonist:
Good grief this is a particularly gorgeous Insomnium song among a recent handful of new songs the band have slowly been releasing, all meant to be packaged together on the upcoming Argent Moon EP. It’s a little curious that they’ve essentially released the entire EP by this point over the past few months, because according to tracklistings I’ve seen, there’s only going to be one more as yet unreleased song on there, which makes the release itself a bit anticlimactic. But that’s a minor issue compared to what’s really on my mind…well, to be blunt, where the hell is Ville Friman? If you checked out their recent music videos, he’s nowhere to be found, and apparently, he wasn’t involved in this recording at all (already on Heart Like A Grave, his songwriting contributions were down to one track). Don’t get me wrong, I think Jani Liimatainen is a perfect fit for the band both as a songwriter/guitarist and a clean vocalist (as heard above), but Friman always struck me as one-half of the soul of the band alongside Niilo Sevanen. Anyway I did some digging, and stumbled on some answers to my question in this article focusing on Friman’s day job as a biology lecturer at a UK university. TLDR is that he contributed to songwriting and demos, but Covid restrictions meant he couldn’t contribute to the finished studio recordings (apparently?) nor be in their music videos. I’m relieved that he’s still part of the creative process in the band, because it was a little concerning with how much his contributions shrank last time around, but couldn’t they have had him record in the UK and just send the files over? Discuss this amongst yourselves.
Brainstorm – Turn Off The Light (EP):
So this is basically a pre-album EP release in the same vein of Insomnium’s The Antagonist EP that I talked about above, in that it collects all of the upcoming album’s pre-release singles into one tidy digital package (unless they’re releasing this in physical format mere weeks before the release of their album, which would make no sense). Insomnium of course do not have a new album on the horizon (at least, not to my knowledge), but Brainstorm’s Wall Of Skulls is expected September 17th. All four of these songs are going to be on there, but I’d still recommend giving this EP a listen to get as hyped up for the album proper as I am, because if these singles are any indication, we’re in for yet another satisfying album from Germany’s most reliable metal band. And the thing is, I thought their last record (2018’s Midnight Ghost) was pretty excellent, and I’m really feeling like these songs have been a continuation of the spirit they tapped into on that record. Meaty riffs, dramatic songwriting, and melodic hooks for ages — Andy B Franck can damn well deliver on a chorus. I broke out in a big grin when the chorus kicked in on “Glory Disappears” and bellowed a big expletive riddled bout of enthusiasm. Yet another moment when it’s probably better that I was alone in the car.
I didn’t plan on writing a one year pandemic anniversary piece, because honestly who the hell wants to remember the past year, let alone mark the anniversary of something that turned everyone’s lives inside out in various ways? But I guess the answer to that simple question is, well, we want to remember it, at least our subconscious minds do anyway. I was having a discussion with someone at the end of March about my feeling generally grumpy, anxious, and uninspired throughout the month, and they said they were suffering from the same thing, and added, “But you know… trauma anniversary and all.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but looked it up on Twitter later, and sure enough, there was a torrent of tweets written about our collective and personal trauma anniversaries and how if you were feeling bad for whatever reason, this might be a hidden in plain sight culprit. I thought it was social media created nonsense at first, but as the idea lingered in my mind, it started to dawn on me that my listening habits had already shifted to possibly hint at this being the case.
Some of you might remember that in early April of 2020, I created a Spotify playlist called The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, and alongside my own picks, I solicited a ton of song suggestions from various power metal fans from the r/PowerMetal community and Twitter. I made it out of necessity for myself, and made it public to attempt to help anyone else out who needed shimmery, sugary, upbeat and inspiring power metal as much as I did to combat all the daily stress and anxiety we experienced in those early pandemic months. I don’t wanna bum anyone out by getting into details, but I was stressed about my job, money, and was one of the luckier ones in the end considering a ton of my friends and family members lost their jobs. Then there was the anxiety of just not seeing anyone or being able to hang out with friends. I suspect most of us made it through by binging content that was familiar and comforting, be it something like Parks and Rec, The Office, Good Mythical Morning or in my case videos of city walking tours filmed in the pre-pandy times. And so with music, I quickly found I didn’t want to listen to anything bleak or dark, I was getting enough of that from every second of the day thanks.
Enter the playlist. I can’t emphasize enough how much I relied on the music contained on this list. I’ll always remember going out for drives in April and May of 2020 around the rural country roads near me, blasting it full volume and glory clawing at perfect choruses and epic moments. It started to become a loud form of meditation, where I’d just lose myself in the music and focus on it so much I’d be mouthing along to any lyrics I knew (quite a bit as it turned out) and at times even singing along. No one was around to hear how bad that was anyway. Those were my brief escapes before I had to come back home and face reality, whilst keep myself busy doing anything but scouring social media for news updates like some self-flagellation aficionado. I could make it a few days, but then I’d start to feel antsy and claustrophobic and anxious yet again, and so into the car I went, for another therapy session. It was the only thing I wanted, nay, needed to hear. I actually grew up becoming a fan of extreme metal subgenres long before power metal was even called power metal, and many classic death, melodeath, and even black metal albums have been mainstays for me throughout my life when I was going through tough times. But something about the pandemic hit different, and I just knew that power metal in its most Euro-swag laden, pomp and glory drenched splendor was the only thing that would help then.
My favorite long-winded quote about power metal was written ages back by a reviewer named thedudeofdudeness on Metallum, who spoke of it’s “proclivity toward escapism, setting fantasy and science fiction themes against the backdrop of the real world and treating romanticism and imagination as a last refuge against the conflicts and alienation of modernity”. A mouthful yes but it’s sentiment was proven true in 2020 and even now a year on. I have such warm feelings towards the classic songs and albums that make up the genre, both old and new. And I feel tremendous gratitude towards the bands who make them, choosing to play a terminally uncool style of music that with rare exception, isn’t going to earn most of them a steady paycheck or even a full time income. I follow a lot of those musicians on Instagram, and it was surreal to see them dealing with the same personal anxieties and financial worries as I was during the lockdown (many of them still dealing with all of that in European countries), all while their music was helping to keep me from absolutely losing it over here.
I’m really proud that a lot of people still listen to the playlist a year later, it’s almost at 100 followers, and we’re over 300 songs and counting. I had eased off listening to it the past many months, due to trying to soak up as much new music as possible, but sure enough when March rolled around, I found myself dipping back into it often. I got to thinking about how there are certain songs on that playlist that just stand out among all the others as being particularly impactful on me, the flag bearers in other words for the playlist’s feel good powers. In no particular order at all (just like the playlist itself), I’ve collected some thoughts on my ten favorite of these songs below in an effort to highlight them a bit and maybe even help someone take a closer look at a band they’ve previously ignored.
Nocturnal Rites – “Still Alive”
One of the best songs in the Rites’ catalog, “Still Alive” has been a feel-good classic to me since I first heard it in 2005, and in my mind the entire Grand Illusion album it hails from was one of the last great records from that wave of really heavy, groove based power metal that around the turn of the millenium (thinking of stuff like Brainstorm, Tad Morose, etc). Jonny Lindqvist’s vocals always struck me as a little Mark Boals-ish with a little David Coverdale splash on certain phrasings, especially here, the end result being a hard rock edge to Euro-power swag. His vocals are a joy to behold here, spitting defiance and tinged with never say die spirit. The volume gets maxed out whenever this pops up on the playlist.
Masterplan – “Spirit Never Die”
This was the first song I added to the playlist upon creation, the only reason it’s not number one in the list is that I thought Hammerfall would make a better opener if someone wasn’t listening to it on shuffle. Look, everyone knows this song, and if you don’t, better late than never. It’s got Jorn on vox, it’s got Roland Grapow on guitars, and a hook that inspires Tony Kakko’s eyes closed musical ecstasy face you see on the playlist icon. The way Jorn vocalizes that “woaaaahhh” after the “leaving the future behind me!” line in the chorus is deserving of a full power stance, glory claw raised to the sky. How do you not feel better while listening to this gem?
Galneryus – “In The Cage”
I’m not going to pretend that this song’s lyrics (what I can decipher of them) make any kind of sense in relation to keeping one’s spirits up, in fact, it seems like Yama-B is referring to some kind of romantic heartbreak or something like it (eternal longing, you get the drift). It really doesn’t matter, because this song’s power is in Syu’s incredibly melodic leads and that unforgettable recurring melody that is just pure joy given musical form. Some people rag on Galneryus for their AOR tendencies as heard here, and those people can clear the hall. That influence works as an open canvass for Syu’s expressive playing, and Galneryus catalog is loaded with so many spectacular and generally underappreciated moments (it took me a long to discover these guys as well). I can’t emphasize enough just how much I love this song, it always cheers me up.
Stormwarrior – “Heading Northe”
The title track and flag bearer for Stormwarrior’s best album, “Heading Northe” in many ways exemplifies everything I love about metal in one perfect anthem of defiance, standing one’s ground, and the triumph over adversity. Equal parts speed metal tempos, power metal melodicism, and punk rock edge courtesy of Lars Ramcke’s gritty vocals, it’s one of the most satisfyingly glorious songs in metal history. Last year when I came back to work in a post-pandemic landscape, I’d often find myself jamming this on the way back home. There was something about feeling exhausted, blaring this at top volume, and careening down the freeway while shouting along to “And the north wind fills my heart again / Withe the flame that missed so long” while making grand hand gestures towards cars around you.
Freedom Call – “One Step Into Wonderland”
I think it’s only natural that metal’s most bouncily cheerful sounding band would have been a go-to during all of this, and there’s a number of Freedom Call songs that I could have singled out (so many that I had to limit how many I threw on the playlist just to maintain artist variety). But for me, “One Step Into Wonderland” resonated more than any other partly for Chris Bay’s surreal vision of a happy, care free “eden” conveyed in his admittedly over the top lyrics. The chorus here is magnificent, and the key moment is imbibing that line of “take away all sorrow and pain” like Bay is a some wise mystic and you’re his pupil trying to achieve transcendence and ride off into “wonderland” on the back of a giant cartoon bunny.
Lost Horizon – “Think Not Forever”
It’s kinda wild that the best Lost Horizon song (I said it!) would have the most pointedly appropriate lyrics of anything on this playlist. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and when I was building the playlist it was a no-brainer for it’s lyrics urging patience and determination, sentiments that everyone needed for a variety of reasons. This was on repeat, multiple times a day for the first couple weeks of everything last year, and continual rotation throughout the rest of the year. It’s just ultra distilled power metal essence bottled into six minutes that feels like three, with an unforgettable riff and an absolutely wild solo midway through. Also Heiman’s intro vocal scream is the kind of cathartic lunacy that can make a bad day bearable.
Visigoth – “Necropolis”
I’d always loved Manilla Road’s “Necropolis” and thought of it as a trad metal anthem despite the ridiculously zany Skeletor-esque vocals. When Visigoth covered it on their debut, it was remade into a beefier, more metallic sounding mold thanks to Jake Roger’s weighter, grittier delivery. Given the context of it’s lyrics, someone on the internet once sussed out the difference between both versions as The Wizard (Manilla Road) and The Warrior (Visigoth) teaming up to infiltrate the mystical necropolis. No matter the band though, I always thought of these lyrics as a metaphor for depression, despite all the specific fantasy imagery scattered throughout the third verse. The first four lines here are almost a mantra: “Through the jungle by the river Styx / I’ve journeyed long and far this day / Lurking shadows in the parapets / Will never make me turn away”.
Bloodbound – “Nosferatu”
This Urban Breed era Bloodbound classic has always been a favorite of mine, not only for it’s serious Maiden songwriting vibes, but for Breed’s untouchable vocals. Sure it doesn’t fit the vibe of the playlist, lacking the sugariness or upbeat positivity of most of the music on there, but I felt like the playlist needed some escapism too and this was one of the songs that immediately came to mind. It’s a vivid reminder that much of metal’s power to get us through the grind is to distract us from all the real world stuff we’re dealing with when the music stops. Also that escalating guitar melody is Tomas Olsson’s crowning achievement, a work of art worthy of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.
Galderia – “Shining Unity”
Galderia is a French power metal band that sounds like they should come from Germany for all their Gamma Ray/Freedom Call vibes, and sometimes I’ll hear bits of Japanese power metal’s neoclassical tendencies come through as well, as on the hyper-driven “Shining Unity”. This is one of those songs that always seems to come on when I’m driving on the freeway, hitting 60-70 mph, speeds at which it feels appropriate to listen to a song that’s built on a perfect balance of relentless speed and glorious technical precision. The group vocals here are so strong, emphatic, and empowering, that you can’t help but get a rush just listening to that chorus. I have no idea what inspired these lyrics, but the utopian pipe dream they envision of a united humankind “alive in harmony” is nice to live in for five minutes before returning to… you know, *gestures* all this.
Bruce Dickinson – “Tears Of The Dragon”
Years back I had started writing up a Bruce Dickinson solo career retrospective, because that aspect of his musical output has been nonexistent since 2005’s Tyranny Of Souls, and I never really had a chance otherwise to write about just how much I love his solo records. I never finished it of course, but I was reminded of that fandom whenever this aching gem would pop up in the playlist. Bruce wrote this song about the unexpected change in his life upon leaving Maiden and embarking on something new and unknown, and that’s kind of how things felt for a lot of us last year and even now. It’s all contained in that metaphor of throwing oneself in to the sea, letting the waves wash over him (us), only in this case it’s not an Edna Pontellier ending-it-all kind of thing, but more a surrendering to the currents of life vibe.
The Iced Earth / Children Of Bodom / Evergrey tour hit downtown Houston on a balmy Saturday May 8th, 2004 at the cramped metal box of a venue known then as the Engine Room. They pulled what the Atlanta Falcons jersey wearing doorman said was the largest crowd to ever turn up for a show there, estimating close to 800 people in a line that stretched down for so many blocks that the HPD took notice and had to get people to stop standing in the middle of the street. It was as intense a show I’ve ever been to, with an ultra packed, sweat drenched, and energized crowd that surged forward when Bodom came on and somehow crushed further together when Iced Earth took the stage. It stands in my memory as being a top five concert experience, with incredible mosh pits, crowd surfing, and massive group singalongs and thrashy headbanging.
What made a great show even better was that hours earlier, I had arrived early to the venue to catch the bands loading in for soundcheck, and got asked by a hungover Alexi Laiho to walk him to the nearest convenience store a mile away so he could buy cigarettes. When we got back and he went in for soundcheck, Iced Earth’s Jon Schaffer and Tim Owens stepped out of their bus, and I got to meet them both, with Schaffer signing my copy of The Dark Saga, a seminal album for me as a metal fan. I shook his hand, and me and the other fan who had the same early bird idea as me chatted with him about the recent Iron Maiden album Dance of Death, and what rare old songs we all wished Steve and company would add to their setlist. The whole interaction only lasted for a few minutes, but it’s been part of a nice memory for me, one that stands out among many from what seems like a lifetime of going to metal shows.
I’ve been a fan of Iced Earth since I stumbled upon a copy of the aforementioned The Dark Saga album and bought it solely due to it’s cover art back in 1997. I soon tracked down Burnt Offerings, Night Of The Stormrider, and Something Wicked This Way Comes and was entrenched, a massive fan. Seeing them in 2004 was only the first time I would see the band live, catching them on numerous occasions afterwards. Being a nerdy metal fan, I’d read interviews with Schaffer to keep up on happenings with the band, and like other fans, it wasn’t hard to notice Schaffer’s libertarian streak coming to the forefront every so often when he spoke on the record —- nevermind their noticeable impact on his lyrics throughout the band’s albums. I think like many other Iced Earth fans, I took his views with a grain of salt, even though they differed from most of my own. Living in a liberal district in conservative Texas, surrounded by opposing political viewpoints in nearly every walk of life even among family and friends, you get used to dealing with that dichotomy and it ceased being surprising a long time ago.
And I was used to that already, one of my favorite albums being Guns N’ Roses Appetite For Destruction, even though it was at times a paean to terrible misogyny. As a teenager who had learned about black metal from that infamous issue of Kerrang magazine, I had naively bought Burzum’s Filosofem, because the grizzly saga behind the album was something I was fascinated by —- and I listened to and enjoyed that album long before Varg’s racial beliefs became common knowledge. Questionable and/or provocative lyrics and imagery come with the territory in metal and hard rock, there’s no avoiding it, but as was the case with Burzum, sometimes they are a prelude to something terrible. For all of Jon Schaffer’s libertarian, 1776-worship in his lyrics, they were just words, and his interviews were just less poetic words, long-winded answers to questions asked and sometimes unasked. I don’t think any of his fans, even those who shared his beliefs, could have predicted that he would end up where he ended up on Wednesday, January 6th at the Capitol building riot that left five people dead including one police officer.
For all of Schaffer’s indulging of his personal politics in interviews, up until Wednesday, it was just that, opinions put forth in print or on YouTube video interviews. Whatever your feelings on those, he was allowed his views and the freedom to express them. As a fan, I had learned to live with that, Schaffer had his view of the world and that was that, I could still be a fan of the music and enjoy the records I grew up with, and even look forward to new albums. I’m not going to pretend to know what Schaffer’s purpose was when he decided to follow the hordes of rioters into the Capitol building on Wednesday. But when he decided to follow suit and entered the building with them, being caught mid-angry shout in the photograph above, he was a willing participant in one of the most shameful acts in the nation’s history. I don’t need to go into why the Capitol riots were awful, you should already know why —- but what I will get into is that Schaffer was marching side by side with people who committed murder, had the intent to commit murder, were engaging in domestic terrorism with explosive devices, and were committing seditious conspiracy via their actions.
As shocking and saddening it is that Schaffer was among those maniacs rioting inside the Capitol building, I’m particularly aggrieved that he was there side by side with neo-nazis and white supremacists. When I was trying to process all my thoughts about this on Wednesday evening, I found myself just remembering all the Iced Earth shows I’d been to here in Houston, where most of the metal fans who attend are like me, brown-skinned to some degree, ie not white. Attendees at metal shows here involve every race and nationality you can think of, which makes sense considering Houston is still the most diverse city in the nation. That was reflected in the giddy crowds at those Iced Earth shows, in the lines at the merch tables, and in the clusters of fans near the tour bus after the show hoping for a few minutes to get a pic or have something signed.
I thought about Schaffer’s partnership with Hansi Kursch in Demons & Wizards. Hansi was born in Germany in 1966, just 21 years after the fall of the Nazi regime at the end of World War II, his parents having had to grow up in the shadow of that terrible reality that their parents’ generation had allowed to happen. Hansi, a veritable teddy bear of a human being, is one of the nicest people in metal, and has been a friend of Schaffer since they met in 1992 on tour together. I wondered what he was thinking, about what he would want to say to Schaffer directly or if he’d be too shocked to say anything. I also thought about my MSRcast co-host Cary, who is Jewish, who has attended Iced Earth shows as well. Neo-nazis’ beliefs include vehemently denying the Holocaust, which is not only incredibly hurtful to Jewish people and German citizens, but should enrage the rest of us. Schaffer may not share the views of neo-nazis himself (Iced Earth after all, have played in Israel before), and I’ve never heard him give voice to those sentiments, but when you walk side by side with white supremacists and neo-nazis for a purpose, you are tacitly supporting their views regardless of whether or not you share them.
And I look at that image of Schaffer above, with his face caught in this contortion of rage, and I wonder: Jon, what the hell do YOU have to be so angry about? Here you are, a white guy in America, who’s never had to deal with the indignities of racism. Your family has never been hatefully stared at in a McDonalds along the interstate in Mississippi when you were a kid. You’ve never had the notion to regret your skin color because it would have made a situation, or just life in general a little easier. More than that, you’re living many a metal musician’s dream, making a living from your music and playing on big stages like Wacken. You get to tour the world in a metal band and receive adulation from adoring crowds on nearly every continent, getting to experience things that most of us will never be able to stuck in our 9-5 existence. Yeah you’ve worked hard for that opportunity, but this global audience is what allows you to enjoy that enriched life. So again, what the hell are you so angry about?
Schaffer will never read this of course, and really I suppose I’m writing this more for my own benefit than anyone else’s, it being the only way I can process my feelings about this whole thing. It’s an understatement to say that I’m incredibly disappointed, but that’s as applicable a term as I can find for describing being shoutingly angry one moment and utterly sad the next. Iced Earth is likely finished, being that Schaffer owns the name and is the central figure in the band, and will be persona non grata going forward (and you know, that minor detail of him possibly facing prison time for his actions). More relevant to me however is just having to deal with this as a fan… or former fan… or however I’m going to describe myself relative to this band’s music. Because even though it will likely be a long, long time before I can stomach listening to Iced Earth’s music again, I know how it goes: I won’t be able to unlike the stuff I’ve already enjoyed.
Maybe some people have that ability, but I clearly don’t. I’m listening to pop music while writing this, but if I hit pause and concentrate, I can think of my favorite passage in “Travel In Stygian”, or the ending sequence to “A Question Of Heaven”, or the thrashy aggressive moments in “The Coming Curse” and even in their fleetingly remembered state, I still love them. They’re part of the fabric of my experience as a metal fan, broadly speaking, but now there will always be a taint on those songs and albums in the form of my mind immediately going to the despicable actions of Schaffer at the Capitol. I’ll have to learn to live with that, and really the only thing I can do going forward is refuse to financially support any of Schaffer’s musical ambitions, if he is allowed to have any after this. I can’t see myself hypothetically reviewing any future Iced Earth albums either (but again, I don’t think that will be a problem). Two days before the Capitol building incident, the metal world came together to collectively mourn the news of Alexi Laiho’s passing in December. I was already saddened from that, and still trying to process it. To think I had met both of those guys within an hour of each other that day in 2004, and now, it feels like I’m mourning the loss of both.
The end of a long yet seemingly short road. In less than ten days we’ll be done with 2020 and hopefully onto better days and weeks to come. For as much as we try to rationalize with ourselves that there is no tangible difference in our everyday lives when that calendar changes over at midnight Dec 31st… the reality is that our perception of a clean slate, however imaginary, can change enough in our mindset to make a tangible difference. Whether it’s the introduction of New Year’s resolutions or just feeling like you can start over —- if that’s a feeling you have, then screw rationalizations and just run with it. I’m calling it right now, I think 2021 is going to be a spectacular year. It might not seem like it at first with the virus still raging and vaccine rollouts moving slowly, but I’m feeling quite optimistic about things in all ways. You should know that I’m not normally like this, but if 2020 taught me anything, its how to better appreciate the things that we took for granted that made our lives bright and worth striving for. The end of the year is also time to reflect, and that’s a tough ask this year I know —- but not on the musical front, and I’m so happy to publish this year’s best albums list below. It’s a brief list that will always serve as a reminder to me that even in the darkest of days this year, the joy of being a music (and metal!) fan never wavered. If anything, I relied on it more this year than any other time in my life, it was the ward against everything bad in the world that threatened to spill into my brain and make life dull and grey. Bring on 2021, I’ve never been more ready.
1. Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:
I think I knew right after my first pass through this album way back in the pre-pandemic before times, that this was going to be sitting atop my year end albums list. I simply loved it too much. So much so that I actually had to force myself to stop listening to it even after my review had been published because I was worried about potentially burning myself out on it too quickly. No, that wouldn’t do. I had to slow down and give it a rest, to keep it sounding as fresh as it was, and so I purposefully shelved it for weeks. The dam cracked frequently however, as I’d find myself returning for sneak listens throughout the summer months here and there when everything else sounded like static noise —- and only the sweetly dramatic magic of Adrienne Cowan and Jack Kosto’s songwriting could deliver what I yearned to hear. Their work on Emerald Seas transcends genre boundaries, at once combining the melodicism of power metal and the epic bombast of symphonic metal through a melodeath filter. Part of the band’s staggering talent is their technical background, all the members being students at the Berklee College of Music. It’s a facet that shows up in Kosto’s neoclassical shred inclinations; in Chris Dovas’ simply dizzying mix of aggressive thrash, death, and power metal drumming styles; and bassist Peter Albert de Reyna’s nimbly jazzy rhythmic performances, often in the foreground ala Eddie Jackson/John Myung, his role in these songs transcending rhythm section duties into jazzy, off-beat expressions to run counter to Kosto. And of course Cowan is as intense and vicious a screamer/growler as she is a shining light of a pure singer.
But it’s the songs that are the true stars here, richly musical gems like “Ghost Of A Dream” and “Every Crest” channeling the sheer inventiveness and ambition of Epica era Kamelot with their playful choice of instrumentation —- Spanish sounding acoustic guitars, some accordion, and massive layers of Hans Zimmer-esque keyboard orchestration. Kosto is the guitar child of Yngwie and Thomas Youngblood, inheriting the latter’s penchant for lean, muscular riffs yet capable of exploding into wild, seemingly unrestrainable neoclassical fury in fits and bursts. Cowan’s vocal melodies here are simply joyful and glorious, loaded with melodic integrity and emotional power. On “Unmapped Darkness”, she manages to guide very literate, narrative lyrics into a sweeping, grandiose melody that is worthy of a Broadway stage. Cowan’s penchant for theatricality is best exemplified in how she ties her lyrical approach to that of the thematic vision of the album, it’s nineteenth century Romanticism a backdrop to the story of a lone sea captain on a quest for eternal life. Her skill at penning imaginative, imagery rich lyrics is seen on album highlights “Succumb” and the breathless ballad “Silvery Moon”, the character and scene coming to life via skillful diction and a strong narrative voice. She’s just an undeniably gifted lyricist and songwriter, her way with words sharing a spiritual kinship with the mighty Roy Khan’s songwriting work with Kamelot, where he elevated power metal into high art. Seven Spires have achieved just that with Emerald Seas, delivering an outright masterpiece with their sophomore album when their debut Solveig suggested they’d begin a steady climb towards something promising. They’ve smashed that timeline to bits, and perhaps captured lightning in a bottle here —- but I seriously doubt this will be a one off. They’re only just beginning.
One of those out of left field fall surprises that always seems to occur, Glow was the melodeath album that 2020 demanded. Channeling the melodic emotion of Insomnium with the clinical precision of Omnium Gatherum, Countless Skies filtered their influences through a kaleidoscope of changing, glittering colors to create a take on the style that is sunlit —- it’s melodies life-affirming and hopeful, matching the mood set by that glorious cover illustration. Part of this album’s strength is how the band utilizes space and even silence as an integral part of their compositional approach, such as on the epic “Zephyr”. Individual instruments ring on their own, notes drifting off into silent voids, all with a sense of emotive purpose rather than just a technique to build tension or anticipation. This is incredibly difficult to pull off this successfully, most bands relying on the opposite approach, to reinforce their songs with walls of sound. And to be sure, these aren’t songs on Glow in the traditional sense —- Countless Skies rarely traffic in hooks or anything resembling traditional verse/bridge/chorus song structures. Moments of beauty are bountiful but fleeting, such as the old school In Flames-ian acoustic guitar drop-off before the four minute mark in “Tempest”. Clean vocalist Phil Romeo’s impassioned exultations on that track and the awesome “Glow – Part 2: Awakening” are a revelation, equal parts Ville Friman and part Ross Jennings (although I’ve been told by a few people that he reminds them of Devin Townsend and now I can’t unhear that). This is an album that sounds effortlessly natural, again making me think just how well suited it’s cover art turned out to be because that simply is the image that this music puts in my mind. Fading afternoon sunlight against a spread of clouds in the distance, and in that visual a sense of momentary peace and resolution.
3. Décembre Noir – The Renaissance Of Hope:
Living up to the band’s name, this was a late year discovery for me, something we played recently on the MSRcast and has proven to be one of the most compelling releases of the year. Germany’s Décembre Noir traffic in thoughtfully written, deep and dark melodic death-doom. In a year with armfuls of death-doom releases, including a new Draconian album, it’s a bit of a stunner to say that a relative unknown has released the highest calibur release among them, but I think that’s exactly what happened. And for a album that can rightfully be described as melodic, this is a shockingly brutal and violent affair, built with slabs of tortured riffs stacked roughly against one another, while vocalist Lars Dotzauer growl-barks throughout like a man possessed. These songs are written in a way that eschews traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus formatting, coming across more like passages and movements. But for their lack of typical structure, they don’t lack for memorability or even something resembling hooks, such as the repeating lead guitar motif that haunts the latter half of “Hope/Renaissance”. The band flexes a touch of prog tendencies ala Novembers Doom on “Streets Of Transience”, and even demonstrates a little straightforward heavy metal thrust during the mid-song bridge shift, with a mighty lone riff propelling things towards an awesome, headbanging sequence. The MVP here is drummer Kevin Kleinschmidt, whose unorthodox timing and unpredictable patterns are a crucial factor in the excitement level running throughout this album. I’d even go as far as to say this is the best overall drumming I’ve heard on any metal album this year, it’s that important to conveying the sheer rage and spittle-flying madness being conveyed here. Late release date be damned, this album will captivate you on first listen, and that’s why it’s so high on this list.
4. Unleash The Archers – Abyss:
Proof that their 2017 year end list topping album Apex wasn’t just a fluke, Unleash The Archers returned this year with what is likely a far more compelling album as a whole. I say that fully aware that I’m placing Abyss three spots lower here, but that’s more due to circumstances beyond its control (namely the three albums above being released this year), and as I said in my initial review for the album, Apex had higher high points (songs like the title track and “The Matriarch”), whereas Abyss is more on an even keel throughout —- one of satisfyingly excellent songwriting tied together with the introduction of heavy layers of spacey, campy sci-fi synths. The band’s ultimately wise decision was to not attempt to replicate Apex in the slightest, to decidedly step away from its thrashier sound profile and aggressive songwriting and head boldly in a new direction. Sure there are moments of extremity found here and there, the near blastbeat percussion on “Legacy” or the furious, coulda been on Apex “Soulbound”, but they are exceptions. Continuing the storyline of the Matriarch and the Immortal’s struggle except in the expanse of outer space instead of the gritty earthen wild, allowed the band to justify adding colorful, psychedelic layers of synths to their sound, to slow down the tempos and temper their straightforward metallic attack to create some rich diversity in their songwriting output. It resulted in gems like “Through Stars”, as unorthodox a song they’ve penned to date, but one that illustrates this approach perfectly with a Beach Boys-esque harmonized chorus. There’s serious 80s Heart vibes on the sparkly power ballad “Carry The Flame”, where guitarist Andrew Kingsley delivers some awesome lead vocals alongside Brittney Hayes in an pairing that makes me think of Nightwish with Marco Hietala. The cumulative effective of all these experiments and risks taken was demonstrating that the band had grown confident enough in their songwriting abilities to trust they’d deliver memorable tunes despite changing up their color palette and brush strokes a bit. As it turns out, Unleash the Archers didn’t just get lucky on Apex, they were simply getting started on building their artistic legacy.
Some may raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of Magnum here, not only because this was one of those incredibly early January releases that might be forgotten due to the time distortion of the pandemic, but also because Magnum is ostensibly a hard rock band. I’ll contest however that there’s enough metallic edge to their current sound to bend around any genre limitations, and not to mention they are a central influence on artists like Avantasia and much of the more AOR-inclined wing of European power metal. Vocalist Bob Catley is of course a seemingly perennial guest on recent Avantasia releases and tours, and in a returning of the favor, Tobias Sammet was a guest on their last record, the excellent Lost On The Road To Eternity. Magnum have steadily been releasing quality records for the past ten years, but it was on that album where they really found some fresh inspiration, and that well must’ve been deep because it’s resulted in the follow-up being their finest album in over twenty years. This is some of guitarist/songwriter Tony Clarkin’s finest work, delivering an album with no duds and a host of absolute gems, starting with the best songs listee “Where Are You Eden?” with its rich, ornate string arrangements. Bob Catley is as ageless as ever, but he’s pure magic on when given incredible melodies to work with as on the heart-aching gypsy balladry of “The Last One On Earth” (it’s lyrics as foreshadowing of the impending lockdown/isolation as anything released shortly before the pandemic), or the stately quasi-power metal of “The Archway Of Tears”. The entire first half of this album in fact is a murders row of to-be classics, and this from a band with their two principal members over 70 years old. If that’s not a motivating kick in the backside, what is?
The swan song of one of the truly great, genre expanding power metal bands borne in the original Golden Age of Power Metal™, From A Dying Ember is as fine a send off from the band to their fans and the metal world as can be imagined. It’s their most classic sounding Falconer album since Northwind, being molded after their first two classic albums, and not quite as heavy as 2008’s Among Beggars and Thieves or the all-Swedish sung Armod. Guitarist and songwriter Stefan Weinerhall set out to create the most Falconer-ish Falconer album he possibly could as a finale, taking aim to cover all the touchstones of styles and song types the band has explored over the years. That kind of bold ambition usually results in disappointment, but to his credit he nailed it —- we were gifted the best songs listee in “Desert Dreams”, an uptempo cut reminiscent of “Mindtraveller”. We also got wonderfully inspired songs loaded with the band’s penchant for infusing medieval folk melodies such as the awesome “In Regal Attire”, with one of the band’s best choruses to date. In that same vein was also the heart wrenching balladry of “Rejoice The Adorned”, a medieval tinged vocal melody led ballad cut from the same cloth as classics like “Portals Of Light” and “Long Gone By”. When I first listened to it, I idly wondered with some trepidation if this was the last time we’d be hearing Mathias Blad’s vocals on any recorded output, and that I’d even settle for recordings of his theater work in the future. He has had one of the most unique vocal approaches that any metal vocalist has ever delivered, one that is firmly committed to his theatrical stage singing style that he performs in his day job, never amplifying it to fit into a metal mold and entirely devoid of any metal vocalist influences. Weinerhall has quietly put together a resume that places him in the pantheon of all-time great songwriters in the genre, and indeed his folk music infusion was genre bending in itself. Falconer are going out as legends, and this album was for me a celebration of the nearly two decades I’ve been a fan.
The most euphoric, spirit lifting surprise of the year, Boisson Divine’s La Halha appeared on my radar via the good people in the r/PowerMetal community who are always sourcing unorthodox stuff that you wouldn’t expect a bunch of people who argue over what Blind Guardian album is the best to pull out of their collective back pocket (btw it’s Nightfall guys). Boisson Divine can be classified as folk metal, sourcing that aspect of their sound from their French Gascony roots which serves to set them apart from the subgenre’s usual geographical musical influences. And were it not for translations, I would not understand what these songs are speaking about (they sing in French and a regional language called Occitan), but the band makes it clear on their Bandcamp description blurb what they’re often singing about: legends, songs to the land, rural solidarity, feasts, traditional songs… rugby even. They marry all this with an ample amount of trad/power melodicism and musicianship, with a sprinkle of punk rock enthusiasm particularly in their often group sung lead vocals. And they write energetic songs that are loaded with hooks that transcended language via insanely catchy vocal melodies, such as on the album highlights “La Sicolana”, “Rei de Suèda”, and best songs listee “Libertat”. I mentioned in my original review for this months back that these songs were without anger —- and that’s something that drew me to this album time and again throughout the year. When it seemed like every minute was consumed with toxic moods and emotions, La Halha was an hour long escape where even the language barrier didn’t matter.
Norway’s Green Carnation returned after a fourteen year hiatus with one of the most cerebral yet headbanging albums of the year in Leaves of Yesteryear. And in truth, this was really my first experience with the band’s music, this album coming my way via Spotify’s playlists back in May. The band plays a vein of progressive metal that is similar in influences to what Opeth and Enslaved are doing now, except while those two bands channel Camel and Pink Floyd as influences respectively, Green Carnation seem to get their inspiration from heavier, more rockin’ sources like Deep Purple and Uli Jon Roth era Scorpions. That’s already a far more appealing starting point for me, and that they write incredible songs is of course what makes this album worth talking about at the end of the year. It’s five song tracklist may seem appallingly short, but these are mostly lengthier songs that are gradually unfolding musical thrill rides, such as the fifteen minute “My Dark Reflections Of Life And Death”, a song that is built on a series of alternately headbanging riffs and meticulous spans of quiet, atmospheric tension building. Vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (also of Tristania fame) is a key draw of this album, his smooth yet hazy singing voice capable of bringing an element of raw emotion in ache and melancholy to these songs. He shines on the album closing Sabbath cover of “Solitude” (yes there’s only four original songs on here but trust me, it’s not an EP), his approach landing in that misty, smokey territory that reminds me slightly of Mikael Akerfeldt during the Steven Wilson producer years. In my original review for this album, I commended it’s overall listenability, and that opinion still stands —- this is one of those metal records that transcends subgenre barriers and should be essential listening for anyone who likes a heavy riff or two.
9. Well Of Night – The Lower Planes Of Self-Abstraction:
It was my goal way back at the beginning of the year to make an effort to listen to more black metal once again after really stepping away from the subgenre for the past couple years. I pretty much whiffed on that plan once the world went south and I found myself stuck inside all day building the Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, but what little black metal I did search out I made count. Case in point is debut album by Dayton, Ohio’s Well Of Night (such an unusual geographic location for a black metal band is by now not all that remarkable, given black metal’s permeating reach these days), who eschew the genre’s move towards more murkier, “post” drenched sound worlds in favor of hearkening to more traditional roots. Here they channeled second wave Norwegian black metal ala Emperor’s blistering wrath with Dimmu’s skillfully written song arrangements ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, resulting in a sound that was richly melodic without the need for layers of orchestra and cinematic symphonics. On tracks like “Apex and Eschaton” and “Black Alder Sacristy”, they utilize major rhythmic shifts and undulating currents of audible bass (in black metal?! Get out of here!) to create texture and space within the fabric of layers of ringing tremolo riffs. There’s an intensity and at times, violence to this album that is staggering, and it’s made possible as a result of the band’s decision to aim for the most crisp, clear, instrument separating mix that I’ve heard on a black metal album in years. It resulted in one of those undeniably compelling listens, one that caught me off guard and had me transfixed.
10. Eshtadur – From The Abyss:
Colombia’s Eshtadur released the most creative, expressively diverse extreme metal album of the year in From The Abyss, a merger of melodic death metal with symphonic black metal swirls and even wild hard rock. This blurring of genre lines within the context of an album and even in individual songs themselves is what makes Eshtadur one of the most intriguing and exciting extreme metal bands to emerge in the last decade, something they started to fully develop on the cheekily titled Stay Away From Evil And Get Close To Me. Vocalist/guitarist Jorg August is the band’s principle member, songwriter and all around visionary, and his approach is to embrace any and all aspects of his influences and distill them into his horror tinged elixir. As a vocalist he is versatile, veering from delivering deeply guttural vocals over some very Septic Flesh-reminiscent death metal to a metalcore influenced scream over a piercing tremolo riff sequence. Despite all the extremity, these are highly discernable songs, forgoing a wall of sound approach in favor of clear instrument separation, a balanced mix, and crisply recorded guitars so that the melodies here are bright and memorable. They’re also catchy as hell, and it’s not even a surprise when a rockin’ cover of Firehouse’s “All She Wrote” featuring Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati on guest vocals appears mid-album. It’s one of the best cross genre covers you’ll ever hear, and despite its bewildering, surreal placement in the middle of such a brutal, ferocious album —- it actually makes sense and provides context to the hookiness of the rest of the record. This is an album that flew under the radar this year but deserves to be heard, precisely because this band is unafraid of it’s unconventional influences, even something as polarizing as pop metal.
I’ve never been as relieved and ready to pen a year end list as I am now, for this most grueling and daunting of years. Welcome to part one of the annual best of feature, once again focusing on the top ten songs of the year with the albums list coming soon in part two. For this songs list, I don’t think it’s that surprising to state that this year more than any other, mood had a lot to do with what ended up here. You’ll notice a distinct lack of anything particularly extreme, and that’s not by coincidence. It’s only recently, as in the past few months, that I’ve started to listen to a lot of extreme metal again, because during those early pandemic months, I just needed it’s diametric opposite. So it’s perhaps accurate in saying that this list might have been ever so slightly different had 2020 been a normal year, although I suppose that could be said for so many things about life in general. Reminiscing aside, like anyone else I’m not sorry to see the backside of this year as we collectively slam the door behind it, but it’s worth remembering that it did yield some truly magical music amid the chaos.
1. Seven Spires – “Succumb” (from the album Emerald Seas)
Such is the magnificence of Seven Spires’ Emerald Seas that no less than four songs from it could have occupied this top slot for 2020, but the most charmingly gorgeous and daringly adventurous of them all was the monumental “Succumb”. Built on regal guitar melodies and a restrained yet punchy orchestral arrangement, “Succumb” is largely a vehicle for the devastatingly masterful songwriting and performance of vocalist Adrienne Cowan. She’s versatile and adept at seemingly everything; capable of fiercely abrasive harsh vox, gritty rock n’ roll belting, and alternately gorgeous clean singing reminiscent of Sara Squadrani’s heartwarming, crystalline tones. Here she manages to merge the latter two in a swaggering, heroic vocal performance so convincing and passionate you’d swear she’s singing it while swinging from the rigging of a ship. And her lyrics are pure poetry, full of inventive phrasing and evocative imagery, the chorus boasting the most striking moment —- “…And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone…”. Her talent as a lyricist shows her direct influence from the mighty Roy Khan, and like the master himself, she knows how to marry those words to unforgettable melodies so as to make their story come to life every time we listen.
2. Fellowship – “Glint” (from the album Fellowship)
The lead off track from the debut EP of UK power metal upstarts Fellowship, “Glint” is the reason why you’ll find so many of the peeps at r/PowerMetal convinced these guys are going to be the subgenre’s saving grace when their highly anticipated new album comes out (hopefully in 2021). While I personally think the state of power metal is more than fine, thriving actually, “Glint” is the first song I’ve seen that’s managed to collectively excite dewy eyed optimists like myself and bitter, cynical curmudgeons alike. It’s brilliance is self-evident, the band’s core identity and style presented in it’s light-footed orchestral sweep and sway, it’s classic-era Sonata Arctica guitarwork and vocal-centric melodicism. The whole band is deserving of praise for their work here, but I want to single out vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry in particular for his unconventional and inspired approach towards his lyrics, which are definitely a cut above the standard power metal fare. The self-empowerment theme running through this song, exemplified in that unforgettable refrain (“I’ve always been worthy…”) has certainly been expressed in the genre before, but rarely so effectively and directly. And there’s something so right and timely about that directness —- we all needed to hear this song this year.
3. Mors Principium Est – “Lost In A Starless Aeon” (from the album Seven)
Striking like a guided missile, this absolute masterpiece from the new two man lineup Mors Principium Est album shot it’s way onto this list upon first listen. Why? Because of those incredibly melodic, almost neo-classical leads, rippling along a classic melodeath riff storming right out of the gate, and the catchiest little double figure-tail pattern I’ve heard in ages in that chorus. The solo midway through is built on beautiful ascending and descending patterns, a flurry of dizzying wizardry. Guitarist Andy Gillion delivered his finest songwriting moment for the band here, not only staying true to the band’s signature sound but refining it into being one of the greatest slices of melodeath to ever grace my ears. This is not only an instant classic banger, it’s emblematic of why when melodeath is done right, and I mean absolutely right, it’s the most viscerally exciting and satisfying subgenre of metal.
4. Unleash The Archers – “Abyss” (from the album Abyss)
The undeniable centerpiece of a spectacular album, the title track for Abyss proved that “Apex” wasn’t a fluke, that the band had developed the compositional skills to handle long pieces with skill and dexterity. This is a seven minute song that always feels like a three to four minute listen, usually with me getting irritated that it’s already over and I have to go back and click it again (the brazen inconvenience of it all). The marriage of synths with the band’s rocketing power metal was central in why the new album worked so well, and that can be heard as a microcosm here. And really, Brittney’s vocals subsume everything to her will anyway, her powerful performance here artistically depicted by the all consuming black hole in the video above.
5. Judicator – “Gloria” (from the album Let There Be Nothing)
Sometimes it doesn’t have to be that complicated to get on the best songs list. A few seriously crunchy, headbanging riffs, a fantastic vocal melody and an unforgettable call and response chorus —- “Gloria” had it all. The added dimension of John Yelland’s incredibly Hansi-ian vocal tone is one of the major selling points of Judicator’s sound for sure, but this was one of those songs where Judicator married their influences to something more inborn, a further refining of their own sound. The guest vocals by Mercedes Victoria were an inspired touch, utilizing female vocals in the most aggressive passages rather than in a typical beauty and the beast setup. Guitarist Tony Cordisco left the band after this album’s release, but hopefully the new lineup has a few more “Gloria’s” left in the bag.
6. Falconer – “Desert Dreams” (from the album From A Dying Ember)
Falconer guitarist Stefan Weinerhall penned the dreamily sweet melancholy ballad “Rejoice the Adorned” to serve as the emotional gut punch of their swan song album From A Dying Ember, and it certainly lived up to expectations. But for me, the last Falconer album’s most poignant tune was actually the second track on the record, the storming, attacking “Desert Dreams”. Not only was it cut from the same cloth as the band’s first two classic albums, all drama molded into furiously uptempo hard rock riffing with medieval-tinged melodic twists, but Mathias Blad does that effortless thing where his vocals stay at their own chosen tempo, regardless of the chaos erupting around him. It’s such an iconic sounding slice of classic Falconer —- and I’ll straight up admit that when Blad comes in with his layered harmony vocals around the 3:35 mark, I get all the feels. Aching bittersweet feels.
7. Sorceror – “Lamenting Of The Innocent” (from the album Lamenting Of The Innocent)
It’s rare that the longest track on an album winds up being it’s most spectacular song, but the title track to Sorcerer’s newest album fits that bill. A slowly, softly building atmospheric epic, “Lamenting Of The Innocent” is a journey unto itself, with distinct sections with separate melodic motifs that are equally compelling. It’s a spiritual cousin to the glorious “Unbearable Sorrow” off 2017’s The Crowning Of The Fire King, which also made that year’s best songs list (also the longest song on that album, must be #JustSorcererThings). The punishing, brutal vocal led bridges are contrasted with Kristian Niemann’s ever breathtaking swirling, hypnotic lead guitar melodies draping the chorus —- his clear tone and emotional phrasing makes you feel like you’re floating into the night air.
8. Magnum – “Where Are You Eden?” (from the album The Serpent Rings)
This majestic, surging gem from Magnum’s early January album The Serpent Rings is emblematic of the renewed spirit and vigor the band has found since 2018’s Lost On The Road To Eternity. Built on Rick Benton’s tension raising keyboard orchestration and some fairly aggro, border-line metallic riffing from Tony Clarkin, this song resembles something closer to Avantasia than the British rock that Magnum is typically associated with. And of course Bob Catley’s participation with that band recently adds fuel to that fire, but there’s truly something positively Tobias Sammet-ian about the heightened arc that Catley rides with his performance on this explosive chorus.
9. Dynazty – “Hologram” (from the album The Dark Delight)
Sometimes all it takes is to be at the right place at the right time… and to be a glorious power ballad of course. I can’t tell you how much I listened to this song around the early weeks of the pandemic, this album having come out in early April when everything was falling apart. I reviewed The Dark Delight among other albums as a means to distraction, but “Hologram”, with its comforting piano intro, plush orchestral arrangement, and gloriously skyrocketing chorus seemed to stick with me long after. It was one of those songs I kept on heavy rotation particularly around the April-June months for it’s uplifting, mood enlivening qualities. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that songs with that kind of power are more valuable than gold.
10. Boisson Divine – “Libertat” (from the album La Halha)
The euphoric, life-affirming single we needed in late-May is the capstone of one of the year’s most surprising, out of left-field albums. Boisson Divine’s blend of Celtic-punk spirit married to power metal guitars and their own Gascony folk-music DNA is honed to a razor’s edge here with an unforgettable hook. If the music video doesn’t lay it out pretty clearly, this is a song celebrating life in a fundamentally joyful spirit. And this song’s timing, post/during lockdowns was much needed, its chorus translated as “But one day you will escape / And you will find your freedom”. The band helpfully added English subtitles for this song’s music video, but I suspect most of us understood what they were singing about anyway.
Here we are at the end of all things, well… all things 2020 really. I’m calling it curtains on the metal year with my final reviews below, and the next updates after this will be my best songs and albums lists of 2020. I will acknowledge straight away that I know I didn’t review everything I planned to this year, particularly here at the end (I tried to make sure some of that stuff was addressed on the MSRcast episodes throughout the year), but hey it has been a tough, difficult year to adjust to and a lot of my free time was spent just making sure I was in a good headspace (I’ll never understand how I was able to mentally survive April and May). I know there’s going to be a slate of think pieces on 2020 as we march closer to New Years Eve. Thankfully life seems to be getting easier personally, even if things in general are getting worse out there with Covid. I’m still bummed out to acknowledge that this will be the first whole year I’ve gone without seeing a concert since I was what 17 or 18? I might have rounded a corner on a dull acceptance of live music deprivation, instead of the angsty panic I was feeling a few months ago where I was actively looking around for backyard death metal gigs in Houston and even briefly considering heading over to a nearby rehearsal studio where local bands held practices to see if anything was up. Based on all the news we’ve been hearing about the vaccines, it looks like we’re going to be waiting until mid-2021 at earliest before we get serious tours running again but I’m hopeful that things might move quicker than that.
I want to take a minute to throw out a massive shout out/thank you to the r/PowerMetal community, a group of snarky but intelligent and kind people who were largely my social lifeline during a time when seeing friends in person on the regular was not happening. That has started changing for me lately but for awhile there, if it weren’t for this bunch, the dark times would have been much darker. Special shoutout to Darko, Rocket, Four, Nuc, and Bones —- some of the nicest people that were not only instant therapy in those bleak early Covid weeks, but generally are always around to entertain my random thoughts at odd hours of the day. And there’s other shout outs as well, people and/or their content which helped me power through this hell year:
I’ve been on the Rambalac train for well over a year and a half now, long before the pandemic, his no nonsense, no dialogue walking tours of Japan being my window into a surreal and beautiful place that I really really want to visit now. A group of friends and I became huge fans of his, often finding ourselves having one of his videos on at group hangouts and finding ourselves transfixed on them, the scenery becoming the focal point of discussion. Now I don’t know what Rambalac looks like, he’s not interested in filming himself and I’ve only heard him speak briefly in Japanese in response to a passerby, but I’m convinced this man is a living saint. Before the pandemic, I googled his channel name to see if anyone else was thinking about these videos as therapeutic, escapist treasures like my friends and I were, only to find little to nothing (apart from the many people posting in his YouTube videos’ comments sections). But now the post pandemic media world has stumbled upon Rambalac’s channel and are flush with thinkpieces about his work. This is cool of course, because more eyeballs to Rambalac will keep him walking and that’s good news for all of us. I can’t begin to describe how calming his videos were in the immediate lockdown months of April and May (and truthfully ever since as well), I would take refuge in them and celebrate their capturing the essence of pre-pandemic life. The interesting thing here is that Ramby (yes I call him that) is continuing to shoot new videos, so you get to see post-pandemic Japan which is… not too dissimilar to what things were like in his videos before the pandemic. If you haven’t checked out this channel, you owe it to yourself. There are a handful of fascinating walking tour channels in his wake, such as Gezeyenti covering the Middle East and ProWalkTours who goes anywhere and everywhere (his Positano and Amalfi walks are breathtaking), and the splinter genre of driving videos best represented by J Utah who puts out captivating content. But Rambalac is the G.O.A.T. of the genre because of his singular focus: Japan is a beautiful, strange, and infuriatingly convenient place where walking is a way of life, 7-11s provide delicious, healthy food and I can only gaze at it all longingly through Rambalac’s gimballed eye.
Haim (The band):
I discovered Haim sometime in April when I was aimlessly wandering around listening to cheerful pop music on Spotify and this was recommended to me as a result. I became an instant fan of the sisters Haim and their breezy melodies with lush harmony vocal drenched guitar rock-pop (whatever we’re gonna call it). They’re a Los Angeles based band, and that California musical DNA ala Fleetwood Mac is inherent in their sound, which might be why a lot of their songs hit me with waves of nostalgia, bringing to mind my California based early childhood It’s that weird kind of nostalgia that you can’t explain logically, like yearning for a time you weren’t even alive for, or in my case, what I imagined adulthood would be like when I was a little kid (damn was I waaaay off). When I wasn’t listening to a crap ton of power metal (see below), I’d often be listening to songs like “Now I’m In It”, “The Wire”, “Something To Tell You”, and everything else from their three albums as I drove around various backroads of Texas to avoid feeling cooped up at home during lockdown. If there was ever a moment to discover a band who’s sound made the day brighter, it was right then and Haim was the right band.
Good Mythical Morning / Mythical Kitchen (YouTube):
I expect many people binged on feel good stuff throughout this year, and while I made the expected runs through old favorites like Seinfeld, Frasier, and Parks and Rec, I really relied on the endless treasure trove of happy nonsense that is Rhett and Link’s Good Mythical Morning and its after show Good Mythical More. I’m sure everyone knows about these guys and their taste tests and silly games (the March Madness snack playoffs are a particular favorite), but I expect that less know about how spectacular their cousin channel Mythical Kitchen is, with Josh Scherer aka Mythical Chef Josh as the host. As ridiculous and fun as their videos are, ranging from fast foods recreated to fancier versions, food fears, and just absolute nonsense like this, I think the best thing to come out of the Mythical Kitchen world is a podcast called A Hot Dog Is A Sandwich. Hosted by Josh and fellow Mythical chef Nicole Hendizadeh, it is my favorite new podcast in 2020, being a lighthearted debate show about food topics that you wouldn’t think are capable of being worthy of in-depth discussion. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated having this brief 40-ish minute break to bliss out into conversations about french fries vs onion rings or if chocolate is technically a candy to get a break from nonstop covid and/or election news. I know I don’t normally recommend podcasts on this blog, but I wanna throw this out there just in case anyone needs some happy happy fun times.
The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist (Spotify):
This was a labor of necessity back when it started in April, a personal playlist to help distract me and cobble together the most uplifting, positive power metal I could think of in one easy go for my own listening. I added everything that came to mind immediately and then realized I should be soliciting opinions from other people in the power metal community for unexpected gems and stuff I’d missed, and not only that, but to share the results of that help with anyone and everyone. So the playlist was made public and I set about adding to it slowly over the past many post-pandemic months now, eventually hitting my goal of getting to 300 songs by the year’s end (we’re well over that at last count). Thanks to everyone who suggested stuff, I’ve even had a few as recently as a couple weeks ago, and I see that the playlist has over 60 people following it. I’m still using it whenever I’m feeling gloomy that day, but it’s also doubling as a much needed brain saver when I have no idea what I want to listen to, just that I need it to be satisfying like right now! I’ll keep building the playlist over time, its not going anywhere, follow/subscribe to it if you haven’t yet and throw songs my way if you think of any.
Hatebreed – Weight Of The False Self:
I think I’ve written about how I got into Hatebreed via listening to The Jasta Podcast often enough on the blog (I’ve certainly talked about it on the MSRcast), but long story short, I was big on 2016’s The Concrete Confessional, it even made that year’s top albums list simply due to the unavoidable fact that I played it relentlessly for most of that year. It’s unlikely that its follow-up, released a lengthy four years later in the clunkily titled Weight Of The False Self will land on my 2020 list —- not because its a bad record, far from it in fact. However it’s late November street date (Covid delayed from its original spring release) is naturally going to prohibit me from listening to it nearly as much as its predecessor in time, and secondly, while it’s as hooky, aggressive, and adrenaline inducing as any Hatebreed album, its not as uniformly excellent as Concrete. That album channeled the seething rage of living in 2016 America better than any record that came out that year, it’s lyrics tapping into a vein of societal frustration and desperation that proved eerily prescient about the election that year. And that rage was reinforced by the full-on embrace of thrash metal riffing into their metalcore formula, resulting in some truly vicious, cathartic music. In as much as that record looked outward with a caustic eye, their new album sees Jasta reflecting inwards once again, his lyrics focusing on the universal topics of personal struggle, self-worth and self improvement. Take the rather shrewdly written “Set It Right (Start With Yourself)”, featuring the most affirming lyrics I’ve heard this year addressing an ultra divided society and the culture of social media toxicity. Rhythmically, the song brings a strong Black Flag “TV Party” vibe, built on call and response group vocals, with Jasta himself reminding me of vintage era Rollins not only in lyrical philosophy but in his delivery as well. Other highlights include “Cling To Life”, built on a sludged-down tempo that builds to a surprisingly pretty and fluid guitar solo courtesy of Wayne Lozinak; and I really love “A Stroke Of Red”, its call and response grinding, headbanging stomp erupting in a pit ready breakdown around the two minute mark that brings back a little of Concrete’s thrash attack back into the mix. There are actually no skippable songs throughout, a rare achievement on a twelve song tracklist, and this will be a frequent player in the months to come, regardless of whether it ends up on any lists or not.
Pyramaze – Epitaph:
Denmarks’ prog-power veterans Pyramaze are back with a follow up to 2017’s fair to decent Contingent. First of all congratulations are in order for the band, who with Epitaph have now passed a milestone in their history for the longest stretch of albums under their belt with a consistent lineup, as well as the largest amount of albums with one vocalist (Terje Haroy). This is only Haroy’s third album with the band, so its not like it was a monumental obstacle to clear, but during that lengthy wait between the lone 2008 Matt Barlow album and Haroy’s 2015 debut, it seemed like the band might not even get a shot with a third singer at the helm. With the Haroy era hitting this new benchmark, this is clearly the sound of Pyramaze, and anyone hoping for hints of their older approach will just have to stow that away —- after all that was two singers and a major songwriter ago. Producer extraordinaire Jacob Hansen is largely now the driving creative force for the band, their predominant songwriter along with outside help from Anubis Gate’s Henrik Fevre with vocal melodies and lyrics. And this new album sounds a lot like the past two, and depending on how you felt about those it’s either something to celebrate or bemoan. I largely enjoy modern Pyramaze because of Haroy’s satisfyingly smooth, hard rock informed vocals —- he may not be penning these vocal melodies himself, but they’re tailored to his strengths. His singing is set against a backdrop of slick, at times glossily produced slabs of modern melodic metal, and its enjoyable stuff for the most part, if not exactly challenging. Songs like “Bird of Prey” and “Transcendence” stick out here; the former for its alternative-rock guitarwork and Haroy’s way with a major key vocal melody that’s bright and hopeful, while the latter is a satisfyingly catchy vocal duet/tradeoff with UtA’s Brittney Hayes. And after multiple listens, “Particle” grew on me, its chorus deceptively earwormy despite the song being a little on the softer side. The big noteworthy track here is the album closing epic “The Time Traveller”, featuring both Barlow and Lance Hart as guest vocalists, uniting all three Pyramaze singers together in a nod to their union onstage at Progpower 2016. It’s interesting in that each singer’s section seems written to replicate their particular era with the band, hence the time travelling allusion in the title. It ends up being a solid song in the name of fan service, although not my favorite ultimately. I guess my frustration with Pyramaze, and indeed a lot of modern prog-power bands, is that there’s a sense of new music being very by the numbers, good enough to serve as a follow up from the last album (i.e. very safe). This is a good record, but not a great one, and I wonder if they have it in them to deliver something that would really wow us.
Dark Tranquility – Moment:
Dark Tranquility are back after a lengthy four year stretch (granted, mostly filled with touring) since 2016’s Atoma —- a record that I didn’t love but grew on me slowly over time, and that I came to appreciate when I saw the band live in 2018. Ever since that show, I’d find myself slowly dipping back into their catalog which I’d sadly neglected a bit over the past decade, and finding more moments that I’ve come to enjoy as much as early records like Haven and Damage Done. So I was looking forward to Moment with not only anticipation, but a catalog awareness that I normally don’t have enough wherewithal to cobble together before a non-favorite band releases something new. And I will say straight off the bat, if you were hoping that this would be a dramatic about face from the sounds the started exploring on that album via heavy synth layering… well, prepare to be disappointed. If anything the band has delved further into that direction, an interesting thing to consider given the lineup changes that occured before this album was recorded with longtime guitarist Niklas Sundin departing and Christopher Amott taking his place (alongside Andromeda guitarist Johan Reinholdz). Dark Tranquility has always been eye poppingly democratic in their division of songwriting responsibilities, with usually a mix of 3-4 members contributing significantly. When guitarist/contributing songwriter Martin Henriksson left the band in 2016, they had already created an album written with scant few contributions from him in 2013’s Construct, in practical terms transitioning his share of the workload to Sundin, drummer Anders Jivarp, and keyboardist Martin Brändström. Now with Sundin’s departure, Reinholdz seems to be stepping in and handling the remaining workload alongside the usual suspects, with oddly Amott left out this go round (why?). The further synth exploration yields an expected number of merely passable, nice in the moment cuts like “Standstill” (I really like that chorus though), “Transient”, and “Eyes Of The World”. Mikael Stanne’s clean vocals sound more polished than ever, but at times that becomes a liability when he uses them too much in a single track. He’s far more effective on album highlights “A Drawn Out Exit” and the spectacular “Identical To None”. I do appreciate that there’s more of a melo-death sensibility happening throughout this album, but the synths are my overwhelming impression when thinking about this album, and my appreciation for the album changes because of it depending on my mood. I’m eager to see what DT can do in the future with Amott writing, they need a little change in their approach for sure.
Persuader – Necromancy:
Persuader albums are such rare events that I always get a little excited at their arrival, this year in particular. They’re just comforting power metal blankets cut from that Blind Guardian/Iron Savior cloth and in a year where the new Demons and Wizards and Blind Guardian orchestral project were both largely dissapointments (and of course you know, the pandemic), I friggin needed some comfort! While its not quite the eight year gap between 2006’s When Eden Burns and its follow up The Fiction Maze, it has been over half a decade since Persuader has released new music, so I’m glad they decided to stick to the tried and true formula here. Longtime bassist Fredrik Hedström left the band last year, and instead of replacing him founding guitarist Emil Norberg is handling bass on this record, and its also the first time we’re hearing Nocturnal Rites’ Fredrik Mannberg on rhythm guitars here. But despite this, Mannberg picks up immediately on what the band’s about and sticks to the precision machine-gun riffing that these songs demand, and right out the gate we’re launched into “The Curse Unbound”, as fine an opener as I’d have hoped for. Its hard to talk about vocalist Jens Carlsson without mentioning Hansi, but when you hear his delivery of lines like in the chorus here “Far from home I’ve found myself all alone in the dark”, he just has that ever so familiar ability to escalate in pitch and yet maintain intensity that just screams classic BG. Along with the epic “Scars” and its glorious chorus (“I look behind the door!” *fist pump*), this is the most satisfying one-two punch combo since “Strike Down”/”Sanity Soiled” on the classic Evolution Purgatory. The band’s compositional skills haven’t taken a hit with all the years away, in fact it seems like they spent a lot of time on the details of these songs. Gems like “Reign In Darkness” have a multitude of awesome details to geek out over, the little Nicko McBrain-esque kickdrum led intro to Carlsson’s layered vocal choir, the darkly tinkling keyboards that pop up midway through in lieu of an expected guitar solo. Norberg and Mannberg are a great pair, just satisfying riffs and explosive leadwork all throughout the record —- if Norberg lacks the wild expressionism of Andre Olbrich, he makes up for it by crafting crushing riff patterns. At seven songs this might seem like barely an album, but its a tight 44 minute banger, and I’m starting to believe most bands should be aiming for something in that ballpark. Quality over quantity and all that, Persuader deliver the goods here.
Iron Maiden – Nights Of The Dead, Legacy Of The Beast: Live In Mexico City:
Why am I reviewing this? Because I want to complain. So yeah its another Maiden live album and another tracklisting that features “Iron Maiden”, “The Number Of The Beast”, and “Fear Of The Dark”, and although its worth complaining about their inclusion on every frigging Maiden live album —- that apparently has fallen on deaf ears over in the Maiden camp and its likely never going to change. And you know, I get it: What we’re fundamentally bitching about there is their inclusion in the setlist in the first place, nevermind the live recording. Maiden throws those songs into their setlist because the band’s likely perspective is to design as inclusive a setlist for most of their audience, including younger fans and infrequent concertgoer fans who maybe haven’t gotten to hear those classics live yet. This new live album is merely an audio document of the Legacy Of The Beast tour’s setlist, and in that sense it’s a meticulous and accurately preserved archive. The presence of “For The Greater Good Of God” is really the central draw of this for Maiden die-hards, it was a surprise to see it on the setlist and a thrill to hear it live, it being my favorite song off AMOLAD. My problem really isn’t with the setlist, as frustrating as it can be for a longtime/diehard fan. The real issue with this release is that it’s merely a live album, as in solely an audio document. Are you kidding me Maiden? This was arguably the band’s most dazzlingly spectacular visual show in their history, perhaps only equalled by the Somewhere Back In Time World Tour (08-09) where we got to see the mummified Eddie and Powerslave era stage set recreated. If you saw the show, or even saw some of the decent fan-shot footage on YouTube, you’ll think of the moving replica Spitfire hanging above them on stage, or the beautiful stained glass cathedral window interior set with the lit candelabras, Bruce with his flamethrowers, and so much more. I can’t even begin to understand why the band would’ve opted for an audio document instead of an audio AND video document, or hell, just the video —- this show deserves a Bluray like En Vivo!. Give me a reason to give you money, because as it is, I’ve played through this live record a couple times on Spotify but without a visual companion, I’m a little less invested in it knowing what I know about the stage show. I suppose it’s a bit of an old school throwback to just deliver a live album in the new era of streaming video on demand, ever shifting attention spans, and endless content… but I guarantee you during this time of no concerts, I would’ve giddily sat down with a new Maiden live Bluray and savored every second.