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.
Hey everyone, hoping you are all in good health. Jeez what a difference a month can make right? In the time since my last update our entire lives have been flipped upside down and we’re living in a time of immense uncertainty, and that brings with it a ton of anxiety to even the most upbeat and positive type of person. I’m not going to get into specifics here, but I’ve had my fair share of battles with anxiety and depression throughout my life. The former is a constant battle, sometimes where I have the upper hand and other times not —- while a return of the latter is something I fear immensely and work all the time to keep at bay. These past few weeks have been difficult to deal with I’ll admit, and the prospect of being cooped up inside against my wishes feels a little suffocating. What I’ve been doing to combat this is pre-dawn walks, and the occasional solo drive-around just to keep myself sane, and my soundtrack to both these activities has been the most upbeat, positive feeling inspiring power metal I can search up. At first it was just the usual suspects, you know, your Dragonforce and Hammerfall, and Sabaton really helped a great deal (their more, defiant, triumphant, victory tinged stuff), but I started to repeat those choices one too many times and decided to address that by creating a Spotify playlist full of this particular flavor of power metal.
To be more specific as to what I’m referring to by the description of “positive power metal”, I’m talking about songs that are either lyrically or musically uplifting and empowering —- songs that can however briefly allow you to push those anxieties from your mind and just feel good for a few minutes. This means lyrically obvious stuff like “Hunting High and Low” from Stratovarius, or “Hearts On Fire” by Hammerfall, where the positive lyrics are reinforced by the major key melodicism surrounding them. But I’ve also included things like “Nosferatu” by Bloodbound, which lyrically may be steeped in its own fantastical storyline, but the guitar melodies are so awesome and majestic that it’s a sentimental favorite that makes me feel good when I listen to it. That same characteristic applies to say “Full Moon” by Sonata Arctica, because it doesn’t matter that the song is about a dude changing into a werewolf —- that song is the kick up the backside I need to hear sometimes when I’m feeling down. Metal’s defining characteristic to me has always been about the projection of power, and all the styles of metal do that in different ways. Power metal’s gift, to my ears anyway, has been about shaping the style of music I love into something that I can kind of wear like armor, something that can make you feel powerful and invincible. A summation I’ve come to lean on by someone named thedudeofdudeness on Metallum may have said it best regarding “power metal’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“.
With that sage like observation in mind, I want to point out that this is intended to be a community project. Indeed, while many of the selections here are mine, I asked many of the folks in the r/PowerMetal community for their picks and scoured the very recent posts on the subreddit that were already asking for suggestions on positive power metal. On one hand it’s nice to know that I’m not the only person thinking along these same lines and needing this particular flavor of power metal right now. On the other hand, the fact that other people were asking for suggestions made me aware of just how necessary the need for this type of playlist is right now. So with the hope for as many people as possible to benefit from this playlist, I’m going to continue adding to it as I receive more suggestions from the power metal community, in addition to stumbling over stuff I’m just discovering myself. To that end I will also add additions that you guys think need to be on this playlist that aren’t there already (so long as they fit the theme and vibe of the playlist). So leave your thoughts and suggestions in the comments below if you want to contribute. And in case you were wondering, yes that is Tony Kakko’s magnificent emoting visage as the playlist’s image —- its the face you all should be making as you’re listening to the songs in it and are overwhelmed by the majesty, the glory, and the sheer bliss of it all. Keep your heads up, we’ll get through this eventually. As my co-host Cary likes to say, Keep it metal!
Hope everyone’s settled into the new year as best they can, with resolutions still going strong or at least having forgiven yourself for breaking them already. Its been awhile since the last update here, which was last year’s best of lists that I actually managed to get up relatively early by my standards (early December!). That allowed me a lengthy break through the rest of that month that I basically took off from listening to metal since nothing new was coming out until January. I hoped to publish earlier in the month but there’s been a combination of family medical scares, close relatives passing away in a two week span, and I was stricken with the flu a week and a half ago. So yeah, not the best start to the year all things considered and they’ve contributed to the delay. To help mitigate the stress and flu-ridden stir-craziness however, I’ve slowly gone over a huge list of recommended things I missed last year (thanks in large part to Comical JC’s impressive list that he discussed at length on our recent year end recap episode of the podcast), in addition to new 2020 releases. And I’ll be honest, its been a slow start to the year for new music, my inbox full of meh to dud promos and no releases from major names coming down the pike until late February at the earliest. There have been a few notable things that have caught my ear and I’m covering them below with quick impressions. But before we get to that I want to get some thoughts on the screen about a random mess of things —- you’ll see as we go:
Spotify Has Changed Everything
So as of December 1st I made the move to Spotify Premium, taking advantage of their three month free trial offer, and quietly, without me noticing at first, its become the final nail in the coffin of physical releases, and thus the end of an era for me as a metal fan. I initially signed up for it to quickly assemble a playlist for the road on a recent friend outing to the Texas Renaissance Festival, but as the convenience factor has grown too large to ignore, its unlikely that I’ll be cancelling it before the free trial is up, and it will just become one of those monthly expenses alongside Hulu and Netflix that most of us have already. Ten bucks a month isn’t really that much for access to damn near everything I could need as a music fan. So why was I so late to sign up for Spotify Premium? I don’t have a clear answer for that really, because I have been using the free version of the service a ton on my laptop for easy music listening and research. But removed from the sitting at the desk, laptop open experience, I didn’t really use it that much because the free version limits you to shuffle play and incredibly annoying ads. So in the car, it’d be the old iPod Nano back to work again, plugged in via a cheap 3.5mm cable. Oh don’t get me wrong, I hate iTunes and everything about its ill-programmed, uber clunky interface, especially for podcasts, but its what I had been using for years now, and the iPod is still relatively new-ish and working well.
Many months ago someone clued me in to the existence of bluetooth transmitters, little ingenious devices you plug into the power port where your car cigarette lighter would’ve been in the old days. These things received bluetooth signals, from say a phone or iPod or whatever, and beam them out on a chosen FM frequency to a radius of just a few meters, enough for your car radio to pick up the signal if you tune into that same FM frequency. Gone was the need for the 3.5mm cable, and in this leap in personal technological day to day advancement prompted me to reconsider all my habits. I started ditching iTunes for podcasts, because an app like Google Podcasts is so clean, lightweight, and easy to use that it no longer made sense to have to download a file and “sync” it to a flash media device when I could simply stream things on a recently acquired unlimited data plan (I used to be capped at 2GB high speed that would slow to a stuttering crawl once eclipsed). And then Spotify Premium happened, and I’m able to listen to anything at anytime and have an algorithm throwing new things my way based on my saved artists/albums/songs and recently played items. Its allowed me to get out of that rut where I’d be too lazy to update the iPod and would recycle what I was listening to.
And look, I know what you’re thinking. This stuff shouldn’t be a revelation to most people —- but it is to me, and its put a few things in perspective from a metal fan’s view: For starters, I think my days of buying physical releases might be largely over, and its been trending in that direction for some time, but the ease of music delivery right now puts this in sharper perspective. I don’t own a cd player, I decided against buying the photobook edition of Insomnium’s last record because the cost of it plus shipping was simply too much for what was ostensibly a book. If I have no use for physical media, not even an optical drive to rip the cd onto my hard drive, what point am I proving buying them? What was once a huge hobby of mine that had slowed down significantly in the past couple years really has lost any impetus to start back up again. Accessing music is just too easy, and I feel that I make up for the lack of physical product sales with going to shows and buying merch (there is no digital replacement for a good metal shirt). In the past I’d feel guilty about this but I think I’m over it, I do my best to support bands I like in the ways that still make sense to me (and through this blog), but I just have no use for physical media anymore, particularly when other life expenses keep rising. I’ll still support Bandcamp digital releases, I have quite the collection of albums I’ve purchased through there, but why support a fading, overpriced entity like iTunes downloads? I’m still using my iPod on occasion, focusing on loading it with old favorites and stuff that I’d never want to be without, but I think Spotify will be my main new music player from this point going forward. At some point, technology got too convenient, and I’m waving the white flag today.
The Albums Of The Decade (2010-2019)?
Recently on the r/PowerMetal sub, the community ran a bracket style voting elimination tournament for the power metal album of the decade. It was a loose, let’s see what happens version of their otherwise highly regimented and overseen Yearly Awards, where instead of radio button polls, votes are entered in thread replies and their weight increases with the amount of explanation you offer along with your particular vote. Accordingly, the decade voting being a simple clickable straw poll resulted in some gamesmanship by certain fan communities, and no one was surprised when Gloryhammer fans voted last year’s Legends From Beyond The Terrorvortex as the best album of the 2010s. Now you might know that this album actually made a Gloryhammer fan of me too, but that it beat out Blind Guardian’s truly excellent At The Edge of Time (2010) in the finals was, well, to quote Monty Python…. The whole thing did get me thinking about what my own favorites from the decade were however, despite my promising on the 2019 Rewind MSRcast ep that I wasn’t going to bother with writing one up. And to be clear, I’m not going to do an in-depth feature on the decade, because just the thought of that is exhausting and frankly, I have yearly best of lists dating back to 2011 and those combined should be a fairly good (if not quite accurate) portrait of what I considered worth listening to for this past decade. But I thought it’d be fun to brainstorm a quick, off the top of my head list of the releases that stood out to me the most, and the ones that perhaps stayed with me the longest. So without further ado, here’s a quick chronological by release year list of my top ten —- I dunno, most fondly remembered albums of the decade? Sure, we’ll go with that:
Blind Guardian – At The Edge Of Time // (2010): I consider this to be a modern era classic of power metal, and quite clearly the bard’s finest album since Nightfall. Its a little frustrating that we only got one more proper album in the decade, not counting the orchestral project (and we’re not counting that), but AtEoT never left my iPod, never ceased to have its songs folded into road trip playlists, and “War of the Thrones” never ceased to make me have chills during its crazy choral vocal passages towards the end of the song. I just love this album so much, its in my top five favorites from the bards in general, so that’s enough of a voucher I suppose.
Power Quest – Blood Alliance // (2011): I was a little ambivalent on Chitty Somapala’s voice when I first heard this record, his one and only appearance in PQ’s catalog. It didn’t help that he was replacing one of my favorite power metal vocalists ever in Alessio Garavello, but Chitty soon grew on me because simply put these songs were as undeniable as the classics on the Alessio era albums. Like AtEoT, this album has become a staple in my general life listening habits, and amidst my friends circle, its become a cherished listen, even for the few who don’t particularly enjoy metal, but who can deny the glory that is “Better Days”.
Insomnium – One For Sorrow // (2011): I love this album, not only because it introduced me to Insomnium (yeah I was late on them), but because it really became my go to album for not only wallowing in misery, but when I needed a boost to get myself motivated again. It was a strangely positive album lyrically despite its bleak, melancholic nature, and I love that dichotomy. I played this so much that I’ve had to give it a bit of a break over the past few years, but thankfully Heart Like A Grave is damn near as excellent and fulfilling my broody Insomnium needs.
Nightwish – Imaginaerum // (2011): In what was definitely a stacked year, Imaginaerum probably should’ve been at the top of my 2011 Best Albums list if I could retroactively change it (I won’t). Tuomas was writing with Anette’s voice in mind here, and that went a long way towards maximizing what she could excel at. The sheer variety of songwriting here is astounding, and there was a rich, melancholic darkness to this album that seems to have left the Nightwish world forever as Tuomas further mind merges with Richard Dawkins and mother Gaia.
Triosphere – Heart of the Matter // (2014): This was 2014’s album of the year list topper, and justifiably so. It was such a devastatingly aggressive, precision oriented heavy metal album with note perfect songwriting and Ida Haukland’s rich, powerful vocals that perhaps the band themselves realized they needed some space from it to refuel creatively. To this date the band is still working to produce its follow up, and I can only hope its because Ida is too busy selling fjord side real estate to Oslo families looking for a summer house, rather than a fear of not being able to muster a follow up.
Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R. // (2014): I don’t expect many to understand this pick, but I can’t help it, I listened to this album to death from around 2014-2015, and honestly it still finds its way back into my rotation every now and then when I need a helping of Jeanette Scherff’s sublime, ultra-emotive vocals over Jens Faber’s decadent, dripping with melancholy songwriting. That Scherff and Ida Haukland both sang on incredible albums during this year was a big reason why I began to pivot towards listening for more natural voices in metal, and was less impressed by ethereal vocals for ethereal vocals sake.
Avantasia – Ghostlights // (2016): Song for song perfection, Tobias stumbled onto a mid-career masterpiece with this album and it was no surprise that it took my 2016 pole position for album of the year. He brought in new, unproven guest vocalists like Herbie Langhans, risky gambles like Geoff Tate, and managed to get truly amazing performances out of all of them. The songwriting yielded the strongest and most diverse batch of songs on any of his albums to date. This was just so much fun to listen to, and still is.
Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs // (2018): An overwhelming listening experience, and the culmination of Orphaned Land’s gradual finding their way to realizing a true metallic and cultural fusion. They simply leaned harder on the Middle Eastern folk musical influences than ever before, and the result was an angrier, more aggressive, and simultaneously gorgeous distillation of their sound. There’s so much inspired songwriting going on here —- a facet that made this one of the most rewarding albums to listen to in years.
Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath // (2018): This was the album that not only convinced me that we really were in the middle of a power/trad metal renaissance, a second glory era as I deem it, but also the record that prompted me to go back and explore tons of North American metal that I’d ignored or bypassed in the years previously. I spent a lot of time at Ride Into Glory, and when Houston decided to bless me with our own recurring heavy/trad metal festival, Visigoth showed up and played and I had one of the most joyous concert experiences of my life.
Idle Hands – Mana // (2019): The most recent entry in this little list, and I know what you’re thinking —- how can this album be on your decade list it was only number two on the 2019 albums list? I’m projecting a bit, because I love Dialith’s Extinction Six (the list topper) to an unreasonable degree, but Idle Hands is a band that is transcending my own personal musical interest and has impacted friends of mine. It’s going to be one of those records that sticks around that I go back to on random whims like The Cult’s Electric, in other words, an undeniable hard rockin metallic classic.
Recommended January Releases
Temperance – Viridian:
I discussed Temperance around this same time last year, having discovered their truly excellent 2018 album Of Jupiter And Moons a few months too late for inclusion on that year’s best albums list (I have a feeling it would’ve landed on it somewhere), and they were yet another relatively new(ish) band from Italy to come along and impress me with not only their strong songwriting, but their distinctive and unique take on melodic symphonic/power metal that made them stand apart from their fellow countrymen and women. Temperance’s deal is that they come with three perfectly capable lead vocalists, two of whom are dedicated leads (Alessia Scolletti and Visions of Atlantis frontman Michele Guaitoli) but also joined by band founder/guitarist Marco Pastorino who is a superb singer in his own right. Okay enough bio talk, most of you probably have been made aware of them recently, particularly since this album is their first for Napalm Records, and you can see the impact already with YouTube video ads and Spotify playlist placements. I’m happy for the band to get a bigger profile, but I was worried when I first listened to the lead off single “Mission Impossible”, which struck me as Amaranthe more than anything I remembered from Of Jupiter And Moons. And therein lies the danger of these pre-release preview/single tracks, because a handful of folks made up their mind about the direction of the new album based on that track’s electro-pop pulse and near bubblegum vocal melodies.
Rest assured, the majority of Viridian is Temperance doing what they excel at —- exuberant, joyful multi-lead vocals delivering soaring melodies over a symphonic metal concoction that owes more to Avantasia’s wild power metal vocalists playground than Within Temptation or Nightwish. If I were in the band’s management/label corner, I’d have advised them to release “I Am The Fire” as the first single/video. It’s not only my favorite song on the album, it’s also the most evenly representative of what the bulk of the album has to offer, and a spiritual cousin to their 2018 breakout YouTube hit “The Last Hope In A World Of Hopes”. The song they actually delivered a music video for, “My Demons Can’t Sleep” is one of those songs that I was a little meh on at first, finding the title clunky as a chorus lyric, but the sheer catchiness packed into the refrain and verses is infectious. Part of the reason for that is simply the energy that Scolletti, Guaitoli, and Pastorino deliver with their impassioned, conjoined lead vocals. We hear this vividly at work on “Let It Beat”, a song that’s pretty straightforward musically, with riffs and keys just laying down a bed for our three lead vocalists to flex their ability to belt it out with power, precision, and just enough flash on vocal modulations to entangle us emotionally. They shine together on the strings and choir accented power ballad “Scent of Dye”, with Guaitoli in particular sounding spectacular and really owning the song with his vocal performance during the refrain. This is a good record overall, but it’s a little scattered in its ideas, at times too ambitious (the interesting vocal only “Catch A Dream”) and in others a little undercooked (the ballad “Gaia” could’ve used a few rewrites). I’m not too concerned about them missing greatness this go-round however, because they achieved that a little over a year and a half ago, shorter for me considering my being late to the Temperance party. I don’t know if signing to Napalm made them feel hurried to finish Viridian quickly, but they should take their time for their next one, because this is a legitimately fun and exciting band that’s proving they can deliver worthwhile music in every outing.
Magnum – The Serpent Rings:
I think most of us can probably admit that there’s a few classic/legacy bands that we grew up enjoying, whose new albums we approach with the trepidation of a 3 a.m. encounter with a cockroach on your kitchen floor on the way to get a glass of water. So often with many of the bands from my formative years I’ve met their new releases with a continued string of disappointment (Bon Jovi and Def Leppard come to mind), but I keep coming back every time there’s something new in the manic hope that they’ll have found a spark again. In the past decade I’ve been fortunate enough to get some tangible proof that my hope isn’t entirely foolish —- Judas Priest’s Firepower is a clear example, as was the Scorpion’s 2010 album Sting In The Tail. I was first introduced to Magnum when I was just entering my music buying infancy in the mid-90s simply by being enticed by the cover art for a used copy of On a Storyteller’s Night. It wasn’t what I was expecting (the artwork suggested something a little more Maiden or Helloween inspired), but I dug it anyway, their blend of gritty hard rock with a sophisticated, arty songwriting touch. They’ve had a few good moments in the albums that came after, but you’ve got to spend a lot of time digging, and really a truly great album has eluded Magnum OGs Bob Catley and Tony Clarkin since Storyteller’s release way back in 1985. But something unusual has been happening for the duo lately, starting with 2018’s rather strong Lost On The Road To Eternity, an album that saw the band get their mojo back (the return of the classic sword logo seemed to suggest the band felt the same way), pivoting towards their prog-rock side a little more than we’ve seen in the past two decades.
Building on the artistic momentum generated from that album, two years later Magnum are back with The Serpent Rings, which might actually be their finest album since Storyteller’s, and no that’s not an exaggeration. This album is loaded with stellar material, starting with the bombastic, epic opener “Where Are You Eden?”, with it’s Avantasia-ian influenced symphonic strut. Its followed up by a pair of equally invigorating cuts, the groove based “You Can’t Run Faster Than Bullets”, and the classic 80s era evoking “Madman or Messiah” where Catley displays a voice that is still capable of skyrocketing heights with a power that seems effortless. A personal fave here is “The Archway of Tears”, a gradual dramatic build towards a joyful chorus that is perfectly crafted. And I can’t neglect to mention the utterly beautiful “The Last One On Earth”, which sports a chorus that sparkles and shimmers with that indescribable magic that only Catley can conjure up. Clarkin’s songwriting on these past two albums seems to be reconnecting with that epic side of the band that they seemed to leave behind when the 90s came around. The absolutely jaw dropping thing about this record is that there are no duds, no clunkers or missteps, and that’s just so encouraging. Clarkin is 73, Catley is 72, and these two have just released one of the best albums of their lengthy career —- and that’s so heartening to me as a fan of heavy music. Not only because it’s given us a modern day Magnum classic, but because it should be a reason for every single veteran band out there to keep making new records, to avoid getting complacent just doing hits tours, or worse still, to think that your fanbase isn’t interested in new music. It’s not guaranteed, but there’s always that chance that like Priest and Magnum, every veteran band out there has another awesome album in them just waiting to spill out.
Brothers Of Metal – Emblas Saga:
Most of you likely know who Brothers of Metal are by now, they’ve made enough of a splash on YouTube and Spotify playlists with the single “Yggdrasil” from their 2017 debut Prophecy of Ragnarök. It was a genuine hit, the kind of song with a hook so indelible that you’ll remember its vocal hook long before you’re able to remember the name of the band. This Swedish eight piece might be new on the international metal landscape, but the ease at which they combine power metal with layers of European/Viking folk melody suggests veteran skill and songwriting prowess (the band has existed since 2012, so they clearly took the time to refine what they wanted to do long before their debut). There’s three guitarists here, and they do a fine job of balancing heaviness with crisp, clear melody, but the stars are co-lead vocalists Ylva Eriksson and Joakim Lindbäck Eriksson (the power metal internet is split on whether or not they’re siblings). Ylva’s powerful, richly melodic voice is the huge draw here for vocalist aficionados like myself, she has a depth and gravity to her singing that I appreciate as a perfect foil to Joakim’s more rough hewn, warrior-throated approach. Joakim actually reminds me of Mathias Nygård from Turisas, not only in tone but his swagger laden approach, and if anything, this band should be a sweet relief to any Turisas fans lamenting how long that band’s new album is taking. Underscoring everything at play here is that Brothers of Metal are fun —- this is Viking metal that takes itself seriously (despite the “The Mead Song” on the debut) filtered through a band that quite clearly is having fun with the approach (check out the face pulling in their music videos for proof).
Does that fun factor mean I’m grading Brothers of Metal differently than I would a more serious folk metal entity like Eluveitie —- in a way, yes. And Emblas Saga is a terrifically fun record, with bangers like “Power Snake” with its borderline silly chorus that would be positively Whitesnake-ian were it not for clearly being a tale of Loki’s child Jörmungandr and his world encircling size. The mid-tempo pounder “Njord” is another ridiculous but enthralling cut, complete with Viking chants during the refrain that never threaten to descend into camp territory. And Ylva is the perfect antidote to when things seem to be heading into shtick territory, her solo vocal intro on the title track is haunting, serene, and I kind of wish they’d lean harder in that direction more often. She provides a nice balancing effect on “One”, contrasting sharply with Joakim’s gravel voice on a chorus that is almost but not quite the equal to “Yggdrasil”. In truth there’s nothing on the album that quite hits the same heights that song achieved in terms of being a clear cut hit, but I do think that “Kaunaz Dagaz” is the best song the band has penned to date. From its sweetly beautiful forest folk intro to what is Ylva’s tour-de-force vocal performance throughout, its the song that perhaps most clearly demonstrates everything this band does well, and also is a brief glimpse at just how potentially high their creative ceiling could grow. I’ve enjoyed listening to this album just for the sheer need for something uber catchy, viscerally satisfying, and melodically varied. The Viking stuff is fine, whatever gets the hooks going, keep it coming.
There have been previous years here at The Metal Pigeon where the year end list was an agonizing, much deliberated upon process, but none like this year. Simply put, the sheer quality of some of these 2019 releases made trying to decide which of them I loved the most extremely difficult. This best albums list was slowly under construction as the year went along, with new contenders for the top spot seemingly popping up every month or so. I guess what really surprised me about the final result was in seeing just who wasn’t there, especially in a year where veteran bands were putting out notable new records. If there’s a theme to 2019, it’s the year of the upstart, the newcomers and relatively unknown bands that wound up making the biggest impact on me. Not only is that something to cherish because of what it says about the health of the metal scene overall, but for me personally it makes writing The Metal Pigeon and co-hosting the MSRcast podcast more gratifying, and just makes being a metal fan more fun too. Thanks to everyone for sticking around to read my words for another year!
1. Dialith – Extinction Six:
The subgenre with the most difficult learning curve and the easiest potential for a band to derail entirely is that of symphonic metal —- in which even its pioneering architects in Therion and Nightwish occasionally misstep or just flat out faceplant themselves in the dirt. Arguably, artistically successful symphonic metal requires gifted musicians, talented and often trained vocalists, and a songwriter that can weave together these disparate elements into something grand, epic, and powerful. It’s such a problematic subgenre that over the years it had gotten stale primarily because most of its artists followed a proven template time and time again. As a result listeners began to feel as though most bands were indistinguishable from one another, that they had heard the same record over and over, and the idea of classic symphonic metal (that is, the stuff not blended with extreme elements ala Fleshgod Apocalypse) began to be the object of scorn and ridicule. Its somewhat ironic then that the band that might be the turnaround for the entire subgenre is an unsigned band on their self-released debut album, who hail not from Europe or Scandinavia, but from Danbury, Connecticut. With Extinction Six, Dialith reintroduced actual metal to the idea of symphonic metal, creating a sound that is at once as shimmeringly ethereal as their obvious influences, but also grounded and gritty, at times full of seething aggression.
They accomplish this by incorporating a love of aggressive melodic death metal throughout their songwriting, thrashy and dense in the guitars, with a punishing rhythm section holding things together. Eschewing the standard rhythmic chug heard in most symphonic metal bands, guitarist Alasdair Mackie unleashes a barrage of crunchy, tightly packed, galloping melodic riffs that constantly shapeshift, slow down, speed up, and veer hard into wild power metallish passages. Directly propelling this attack is drummer extraordinaire and dark horse mvp candidate of the album Cullen Mitchell, whose incredibly creative patterns and fills bring a bracing urgency to these songs. Vocalist Krista Sion turns in the most compelling vocal performance in a symphonic metal record in the past decade, at once haunting and yet earthy, capable of sounding serene, or detached, and even angry from moment to moment. I simply could not stop listening to this record once I was introduced to it, and despite its August release date, it is my most played album of the year. I would listen to it at home, when driving to work, and when wearing headphones at the grocery store, blankly staring at bags of frozen veggies while I wondered how it took until 2019 for anyone to realize that the secret to revitalizing symphonic metal is to worry less about the symphonic bit, and just get more metal with it. That Dialith stumbled upon this truth on their first full length defies logic —- but that its an American band that’s bringing new life to a European born subgenre long declared dead is something I’m thrilled about. If you haven’t figured out by now that the most exciting new metal bands are spilling out of the USA and Canada this last half decade, consider Dialith’s Extinction Six another gloriously loud wake up call.
This is likely going to be one of those rare times when something on my year end list matches a lot of other publications, probably some high profile ones too. And when it comes to Idle Hand’s gnawingly irresistible debut Mana, that’s the way it should be, because this record is undeniable. You might recall that I was a bit conflicted on this album way back in the summer, even mentioning on an episode of the MSRcast that I found vocalist Gabriel Franco’s grunts and wolfman exultations a little trying. But his songwriting was just so compelling, and cuts like “Give Me To The Night”, “Jackie”, and the glorious “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” were too addictive to cast aside over a minor gripe. Funnily enough however, I began to learn to love those strange vocal outbursts, now to a point where I can’t imagine the songs without them and you damn well better believe that when I catch the band live in March I’ll be matching Franco grunt for grunt. Idle Hands’ sound is a blend, a Tribulation-esque metallic crunch to the riffs, with the hard rock strut and mystical swagger of The Cult, and the detached gothic sensibility to Franco’s stoic vocal tone that brings to mind Sisters Of Mercy or The Mission. But Mana is more than just the sum of its influences, as Franco’s songwriting style is imbued with a distinctive character, and guitarist Sebastian Silva turns in one of the finest performances of anyone on any album all year. Oh and the other thing that honestly counts for a lot these days —- that when I needed to hear something fun, to perk me up, to lift my mood, Idle Hands’ Mana wasn’t far from my mind or my speakers.
Representing a new spoke on the pinwheel of diversity that is French metal, Aephanemer broke this year in a big way with their sophomore album Prokopton. Unlike the black metal infused artistry of Blut Aus Nord and Alcest, or the raw, vicious speed/power blend of last year’s best albums list maker Elvenstorm, this four piece from Toulouse weave together Gothenburg-ian melodic death metal with classical inspired melodies (and apparently traditional Slavic music too, I’ll take their word for it). Lead guitarist and principal songwriter Martin Hamiche is a veritable fountain of non-stop melodies, most of which sound like they should be played on a violin or cello. Alongside rhythm guitarist/vocalist Marion Bascoul, they weave together the most frenetic yet beautiful guitar wizardry set to urgent, insistent tempos. And they simply don’t stop —- the melodies weave one idea into another without skipping a beat, and segues into ultra-aggressive headbanging riffs come without warning and with maximum impact. Bascoul’s rhythm guitars are fierce and just crunchy enough to stand apart from Hamiche’s decadent, flourish laden performances. But its her vocals that are perhaps her most valuable asset, brutal and snarling, shaded with a little black metal grimness, and crisply enunciated. The relentless pace of this album is hyper-aggressive, a breathless flurry of consistently up-up-up-tempo dizziness (ever have those dreams where you’re driving uncontrollably fast and fly off a highway overpass, tracks like “Bloodline” should be their soundtrack). I was stunned outright when I first heard Prokopton all those months ago, and still feel the same way listening to it now —- this was not only a bold re-imagining of what melodic death metal could be, but perhaps the most high-energy album to ever grace a Metal Pigeon year end list.
4. Thormesis – The Sixth:
Though they’ve been around for a decade plus, Germany’s Thormesis kinda languished in the dark for their first five albums (that they were sung in their native language probably didn’t help much). Cue The Sixth, where the band scaled back their pagan folk roots, incorporated more post-metal influences (particularly with moodier passages built on vividly ambient clean guitar figures), but most importantly, they brought some old school rock/metal sensibility to the affair. Tremolo guitars rarely dominate for long on these songs, often veering into (no other way to describe it other than…) rockin’ passages where you’re locked in with meaty, hooky riff progressions. The lead guitar flying over the top throughout is loose and wild with a hard rock sensibility, often going for maximum dramatic impact with inspired melodic motifs. And melody is where Thormesis reign supreme, because the fundamental appeal of this album is their ability to tightly control and deploy blasts of blistering, furious black metal within highly melodic, very accessible songwriting structures. The result was an album of songs that didn’t feel oppressive, didn’t require a certain kind of mood or external ambiance in order to really “get into it”. On the contrary, the band would often paint complex musical moments where you’d detect shades of melancholy and optimism simultaneously, such as in the ending sequence of “Their Morbid Drunken Ways”. Which meant that I listened to this album when I was in need of something angry, but also played it when I was perfectly calm and it was bright and sunny out. For someone like me who is finicky about stuff like being in the right mood to fully appreciate this or that album —- The Sixth was an anomaly, a kind of meditative space where I could be encompassed by its strange mix of disparate musical elements and figure myself out.
5. Swallow The Sun – When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light:
This was not an easy album to listen to, even though I feel its Swallow The Sun’s strongest work to date in a career full of excellent moments. Enough has been written and spoken both on this blog and random episodes of MSRcast about the backstory behind this album, perhaps too much, but its not like you can ignore it particularly when these songs are the channeling of grief by the band’s chief songwriter. Its a sad, somber record that can weigh on you if you’re susceptible enough, and there were times when I simply didn’t want to listen to something this damned heavy… as in burden of grief heavy. In April I saw the band perform live on their tour with Children of Bodom, their first American trek with Juha Raivio in tow in years. He’d understandably skipped the past few tours, but there he was directly in front of me, playing some of these songs that he’d written to process whatever turmoil it was he was going through, and it was surreal to watch someone exorcising that in front of you. Getting to see that in person made me realize just how much of a triumph When A Shadow…actually is, because rather than rely on the old school Swallow The Sun formula, Raivio borrowed from the gothic splendor of the Trees of Eternity record to rejuvenate the band’s sound. This yielded aching melancholy through bittersweet melodies, a lushness through layered vocals from excellent performances by Mikko Kotamäki and keyboardist Jaani Peuhu, and allowed Raivio to incorporate empty space as a texture more than ever before. The overall effect was meditative, with songs that moved at a stately, often wandering pace, all working to support the evocative lyrical imagery of fire and shadow, of solitary temples, and expansive lakes under starlit skies. An uncomfortable listen at times, but one of the most compelling that I’ve ever experienced as a metal fan, full stop.
In any other year, Insomnium’s emotionally wrought Heart Like A Grave could have been at the top of this list, and it’s a testament to the aforementioned abundance of awesome releases that there are five others ahead of it here. Some may feel that the restrained, more subdued nature of some of these songs arriving in the wake of the brutal, blistering, black metal injected Winter’s Gate was too much of a deviation for their liking, but that’s precisely why I feel so strongly about it as a fan. The band ran out of some of their creative magic on Shadows Of A Dying Sun in 2014, and the step towards a more extreme direction on Winter’sGate helped them grab some distance from their “classic” sound. Returning to it now, the band displayed some renewed vigor, helped along by fresh songwriting inspiration by dipping deeper than ever before into the well of Finnish melodic melancholy by the way of Sentenced and Amorphis. The result was an album expressly written with an ear towards guitar and vocal melodies, with purely rhythmic riffs being secondary in the equation, at times even kept to a supporting role as on “Pale Morning Star”. On songs like “Valediction” and “Heart Like A Grave”, the band broaden the role of clean vocal melodies like never before, with Ville Friman and newcomer guitarist Jani Liimatainen carrying entire passages with their voices. Lyrically, a bleak, despairing streak coursed through these songs that was particularly downcast even for Insomnium. There were streaks of optimism firing through albums like One For Sorrow and Shadows, but not here, with themes of hopelessness and inner despair set against the backdrop of a fraying outside world. That they set these dark themes against some of the most achingly poignant melodies in a way that makes them heartbreakingly bittersweet is central to Insomnium’s brilliance and the emotional reach of Finnish melo-death.
7. Månegarm – Fornaldarsagor:
Earlier in the year, Swedish folk veterans Månegarm released their strongest record in a decade with Fornaldarsagor, one that is also arguably the most satisfyingly fun of their entire two decades long catalog. Still incorporating the broiling black metal foundation that’s been the broth to their particular recipe of folk metal phở, the Swedes stumbled upon a batch of incredibly hooky material for this record, helped along by leaning hard on the warm folky elements that we’ve gotten on albums past in fits and starts. Here they blanket the proceedings almost entirely, and as a result the album is a lot more mid-tempoed than you’d expect from a band built on black metal foundations. That’s not a bad thing though, because these are melodies that are incredibly endearing, not quite sugary, but possessed with enough sweetness to be a bright, uplifting counterpoint to all the aggression. Adrenaline ratcheting cuts like “Sveablotet” and “Hervors arv” were set to racing tempos, ringing tremolo guitars as well as a dense, melo-death riff battery that anchored everything with a powerful rhythm presence. But they were both spliced open with explosions of folk melody, yielding to its tempo needs and abrupt transitions. On the album highlight “Ett sista farval”, they were aided by gorgeous lead vocals from Ellinor Videfors in a duet with longtime Manegarm vocalist Erik Grawsiö —- their combined clean vocal combo resulting in one of the most poignant folk metal tracks that I can remember in years. Though the folk metal revitalization is taking a slower, more steady path than power metal’s recent resurgence, it’s comforting to see old hands like Vintersorg, and now Manegarm come up big as of late with stellar new albums. The genre was in need of a refocusing on its roots before it was handed off to younger, newer bands —- thankfully, Manegarm are doing their part.
8. Sabaton – The Great War (The History Edition):
Sabaton have had records on my year end lists before, so this shouldn’t be a surprise —- however they’ve not been on all of them. Only Carolus Rex and Heroes have made it on, with The Last Stand never even making my final nominees list. I say that to emphasize that even though I do love this band, I’m not blind to their faults and tendencies, and that being said, there’s plenty of reasons why Sabaton made the cut this time as well with an album that is arguably their strongest since the aforementioned Carolus Rex. You might have noticed above that I specified the History Edition of The Great War, and while I don’t believe that merely the presence of the historical narrations via a talented British (?) voice actor made all the difference between this album appearing on this list or not, I do believe that it is the definitive version of the album that all Sabaton fans owe it to themselves to check out. But indeed, The Great War is here because of its songs, with cuts like “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”, “The Red Baron” and “Great War” among the band’s very best compositions. The band took their time with this record, with the gap between this and 2016’s problematic The Last Stand being the longest in between releases they’d ever taken. That extra year allowed for time to focus on working on the ambitious World War I theme running throughout this album. And there’s something to be said about Sab using a darker, more somber theme for a change to their songwriting advantage. It forced them to write material that wasn’t all major chords and skyrocketing choruses, but to get heavy, to lean hard on the riffing and pyrotechnics combo of Chris Rorland and Tommy Johansson to get down in the mud and muck. Joakim Broden is of course ageless and still one of the most compelling songwriters in metal, turning in lyrics and performances here that bring these stories to life and make audiences care about them. This was the rebound they needed after The Last Stand saw them dangerously treading water, and I can’t begin to fathom how they’re gonna try to top it.
Hot on the heels of their impressive debut album last year(!), Italy’s newest power metal phenoms Frozen Crown decided to waste no time and in lieu of extensive touring, worked on crafting a follow-up that would capitalize on the momentum they had built up. Its a smart strategy, and when you have a songwriter with the hook crafting talent of Federico Mondelli, you’re better off unleashing new songs to build up a catalog and get word of mouth by winding up on lists like this one rather than coughing up thousands in rental and fuel costs on the road. Undoubtedly, Frozen Crown will have some pretty sweet tour offers down the road, but for now its enough that they’re focused on their art, because Crowned In Frost makes the case for being the most fun power metal album of the year. Mondelli infuses crackling energy into songs like “Neverending”, “In The Dark”, and “Winterfall” by augmenting soaring power metal melodies with aggressive, melodeath riffing. He’s backed up in this by the dizzying battery of drummer Alberto Mezzanotte, who delivers wildly engaging, creative patterns, never resorting to power metal drumming 101 (check out his absolutely bananas work on “Winterfall” in particular). But it’d all be for naught if they didn’t have a vocalist who didn’t live up to all that excellent musicianship, and Giada Etro in a mere two year span has made a case to be considered one of the best in the genre. Simply put, she’s capable of soaring heights, has a rich, powerful timbre to her voice, and her choices in regards to phrasing, diction, and emphasis are downright impeccable. Mondelli’s melo-death inspired screaming vocals are a welcome addition to the Frozen Crown mix too, giving the band the ability to pull sudden turns off the trad/power route into extreme territory to ratchet up the energy or darken the mood. But what I love the most about this record is that it demonstrates that Mondelli and company seem to understand what fundamentally makes excellent power metal so vital —- that it delivers a sense of grand adventure, of spirit raising triumph, and defiance against the odds. Along with a score of other new bands arriving on the scene, Frozen Crown make me feel really confident about the health and future of the genre going forward.
Spain’s Helevorn may not have the big name pedigree of other death-doom metallers like Swallow The Sun, Paradise Lost, or My Dying Bride, but they deserve to be highlighted alongside those titans based on the quality of an album like Aamamata. And for sure those aforementioned bands’ collective influence can be heard through the bleak brutality present here, but what sets Helevorn apart is their unabashed embrace of gothic metal palettes and textures, particularly in the vocal department. On “A Sail To Sanity”, vocalist Josep Brunet balances his throat ripping gutturality with emotive, deep, and dare I say smooth clean vocals that sometimes affect a slight goth rock stoicism. I know that Helevorn’s geographic proximity to Spain might have influenced my thinking that there’s a heavy Moonspell influence at work here, but swear its audibly palpable on the trance inducing guitar motif being used in that song, and it pops up in other places throughout the album. Said influence is clearly running through an adventurous, genre defying cut like “Nostrum Mare”, a dreamy but desolate ballad with cinematic symphonic keyboards, a guest performance by an unknown vocalist singing in Catalan, and a gorgeous, haunting outro guitar solo. That blend of diverse elements sounds like its a bit much but Helevorn have the compositional chops to arrange everything into powerful, drama building passages. Draconian’s own Heike Langhans drops in for a suitably doom meets goth metal guest vocal moment on “The Path To Puya”, adding a bit of stargazing cosmic grandeur to a bleak, and morose sounding track about the trek to the afterlife. This album sailed under the radar for loads of people, and its early January release date will probably keep it off most folks radars when considering the best records of the year. That’s a shame because excellent work should be given its due, regardless of how relatively low a band’s profile is, and hopefully Helevorn’s placement here can be the start of that.
It’s been an incredible year for new music, one of the best that I can remember, and I’m wrapping it up with part one of the double Best of 2019 feature. I’ve done a best songs list since 2012, and I think in the end of the year flurry around albums, its excellent songs that often tend to get lost in the shuffle. As expected, there will be some crossover here with the upcoming albums list, but I love giving isolated gems from problematic albums some attention on here. For the metrics, I did consider my iTunes play counts (yes I’m still using an iPod Nano), but as Spotify has increasingly taken over as a source for music, those stats are becoming less relevant. So I had to really check myself to be as honest as possible, even if it makes a few readers shake their heads in bewilderment as I’m sure some of the stuff below will. Be sure to check out our upcoming MSRcast episodes for discussion on late 2019 releases, as well as our gigantic year end blowout episodes where we’ll likely be talking about a ton of stuff not covered here.
1. Avantasia – “Ghost In The Moon” (from the album Moonglow)
The opening track from Avantasia’s flawed but fun Moonglow, “Ghost In The Moon” contained a shimmering, shooting star chorus that was launched on the back of a gorgeous, rolling piano melody. It was a strange track coming from Sammet, with a rounded, soft approach to the songwriting that owed more to classic rock n’ roll than the sharp edges and angles of metal. It was the first time he simultaneously wore the Jim Steinman influence on his sleeve and yet transcended it at the same time. At just under ten minutes in length, it was an ambitious album opener too —- and I’ve heard so many bands try the epic as the opener gambit that have fallen flat on their faces and irreparably damaged an album’s pacing and momentum. Sammet must’ve felt confident that he had a gem on his hands then, and in another sign of confidence, took on this song solo on an album full of guest vocalists on all the other songs. The fantastic gospel choir backing vocalists singing half a beat behind him provided that soaring, spiritual uplift that lodged this song in comfort listening territory all through the year.
2. Sabaton – “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom” (from the album The Great War)
Built on insistent riff progressions and an inspired vocal melody from Joakim Broden, Sabaton found magic on the stirringly heroic “Seven Pillars Of Wisdom”, a song about the exploits of the legendary T.E. Lawrence. There’s a riding on horseback through the desert rhythmic gallop at work here, and a swashbuckling swing to the chorus, suggestive of the derring-do ascribed to Lawrence himself in the lyrics. Largely devoid of keyboards, it was also refreshingly aggressive for Sabaton, built on the mechanized rhythm guitar of Chris Rörland and wild, flashy fireworks of Tommy Johansson. It was the clear highlight off The Great War, and should go down as an all-time classic for the band, and to my ears its their best song to date.
3. Idle Hands – “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?” (from the album Mana)
Truth be told, there were a few songs off Idle Hands incredible debut album that could’ve wound up on this list, in fact I had “Give Me To The Night” and “Jackie” shortlisted for it, but I think it was going to be inconceivable to not include the strange, slightly mystical “Dragon, Why Do You Cry?”. Built on a Queensryche-ian bassline and guitarist Sebastian Silva’s chiming chord strums, this is a moody ballad that’s too dark and metaphorical to call a power ballad. Singer Gabriel Franco narrates us through his weird fantastical dream world with his emotional yet plaintive sounding vocals, sounding detached and possessed of a raw urgency at once. In the song’s apex, Franco counts down from eight to usher in Silva’s incredible, Latin-rock tinged solo, a transcendent moment that is as thrilling as it is weird.
4. Ancient Bards – “Light” (from the album Origine – The Black Crystal Sword Saga Part 2)
Ancient Bards are no strangers to ballads, but when they released “Light” just ahead of their fourth album Origine, they raised a few eyebrows. It was a lush piano and vocals centric affair that was dewy-eyed and heart on sleeve, something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Frozen 2 soundtrack. Its glossy, 4kHD music video juxtaposed interpretive dance intercut with singer Sara Squadrani dressed to the nines while singing on the shore of the Adriatic Sea at sunrise. This somehow landed on a conceptual fantasy story driven album? How did that even make sense? It didn’t, but Ancient Bards did it anyway because they had the wisdom to realize that a great song shouldn’t be ignored or stuffed into the vault just because its screamingly different or gasp, even non-metal to its very essence. There are guitars towards the end, including a sugary sweet solo, but by then you’re already miming along to Squadrani doing your best Celine Dion impression. Get. Into. It.
5. Swallow The Sun – “Here On The Black Earth” (from the album When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light)
The gut wrenching, agonizingly sad emotional center of one of the bleakest albums of this decade, nevermind the year, “Here On The Black Earth” is not an easy listen. It is however, a rewarding one musically speaking, its gripping musical refrain and lyrical motif colliding in a chorus that sends shivers down your arm. The lyrics here are elegiac, woven with imagery of the natural world and flesh and bone. Of course if you’re aware of the backstory behind this record, you’ll know that Juha Raivio was writing from a deeply personal perspective, yet he was also self-aware enough to keep things ultimately vague, providing space for this song to attach itself to anyone’s grief or sadness. The vocal performance by Mikko Kotamäki is fierce and empathetic, he really sinks into the brutal nature of the lyrics on his harsh vocal explosions, while allowing his clean vocals to sound slightly detached and deadened. That’s a tough ask of any singer but you get the feeling that he just knew what to do, and up and did it.
6. Frozen Crown – “In The Dark” (from the album Crowned In Frost)
Embodying the very essence of what we love the most about power metal, Italy’s Frozen Crown delivered a gem with “In The Dark”. It’s a tightly written gem burning with an empowering and defiant spirit, with a perfectly sculpted, fully arcing chorus. Vocalist Giada Etro is a dynamic singer, maintaining crispness and intensity through nuanced verses, with effortless transitions to a soaring belt during the refrain. Alongside songwriter/guitarist/co-vocalist Federico Mondelli, the pair are integral to what has become the most exciting new power metal debut on the European mainland in recent years. There’s a youthful vigor to the sound here that is exciting to behold, the kind of thing we heard on Edguy and Sonata Arctica records back in the late 90s. And alongside their compatriots in Temperance and Ancient Bards, they’re redefining what Italian power metal can sound like, and that’s something I’d never have imagined possible a few years ago.
7. Avatarium – “The Fire I Long For” (from the album The Fire I Long For)
Sneakily released in late November (Nuclear Blast should know better), this one almost eluded me, but thankfully I caught it in time to consider just how much Avatarium have transitioned away from their 70’s occult rock/doom hybrid into a band that embraces a wider artistic palette. Whether the stepping away of Candlemass founder Leif Edling has been the impetus of change or it was merely a natural artistic progression, there’s a wider range of influences at work throughout their new album. Here on the gorgeous, smoldering title track, vocalist Jennie-Ann Smith channels darker, alt-country chanteuses such as Lucinda Williams, Neko Case, and fellow Swede Nina Persson. This is a hypnotic song, lush and full of depth and artistry, both in Smith’s expressive vocals but also in guitarist Marcus Jidell’s inspired, loose, dark-countrified licks. Don’t skip this tune.
8. Dialith – “The Sound Of Your Voice” (from the album Extinction Six)
The lead off track from one of the year’s most visceral and exciting releases, “The Sound Of Your Voice” is the likely introduction for many to Connecticut(!) symphonic metallers Dialith, having been a full-length YouTube ad that a lot of folks may have stumbled upon whilst watching other videos. It’s a remarkable song on its own, not least for its perfect encapsulation of Dialith’s many interlocking musical elements, but for its euphoric, triumphant spirit streaking through it, particularly in the latter half of the song. Through a combination of crunchy and dense melodeath riffing, restrained keyboard symphonics, and the serene yet strong vocals of Krista Sion, Dialith have single-handedly brought a fresh perspective to what symphonic metal could and should sound like. And just to put into perspective how utterly spectacular Extinction Six is as an album, I also had “Break The Chains” and “In Every Breath” as nominees for this list as well. As you might predict, this isn’t the last time I’ll be writing about Dialith this year…
9. Everfrost – “Winterider” (from the album Winterider)
Everfrost was one of those unexpected, out of nowhere surprises this year, and they arrived like a good priest with the timely heals in your mmorpg party (in the game of your choice of course —- shout out to any old Shadowbane players!), swooping in to comfort us in the wake of Sonata Arctica’s disastrous new album with a blast of sugary, wintry old school Finnish power metal. It’s hard to imagine a more timely release. But founding member/keyboardist Benjamin Connelly gets credit for being more than just the sum of his influences, being a sharp songwriter capable of crafting razor sharp hooks in songs imbued with a sense of freshness and fun. Case in point is the title track “Winterider”, which features one of the most satisfying opening keyboard/guitar riffs in power metal history, and packs as much energy as possible in its tight, compact synth melodies and urgent guitars. The band’s anime/manga aesthetic clearly leaves more than just a visual imprint on the band, with the frenetic, insistent pacing of this song reminding me of equal parts Galneryus and J Rock as it does the ultra-fast cutting and editing of the most hyperbolic animes. The glorious finale from the 3:26 moment onwards is what got this track on this list, bringing an adrenaline rush so addictive that I needed a daily fix.
10. Gloryhammer – “Gloryhammer” (from the albumLegends From Beyond The Galactic Terrorvortex )
It would be downright disingenuous to leave this track off the best songs list, considering how much I listened to it throughout the year, surprising not only myself but those around me who’d heard me grumble about bands like Gloryhammer in the past. Well opinions can change over time and shout out to the crew in the r/PowerMetal community for yet another thing they’ve managed to foist upon my playlists, because it was their enthusiasm for Gloryhammer that caused me to consider their new album this year with fresh ears and an open mind. It was the eponymous single “Gloryhammer” that was the clear cut apex of an already excellent album, with a hook built on a classic power metal mid-tempo strut and a high arcing vocal melody. The secret to pulling off such ridiculous lyrics lies in vocalist Thomas Winkler’s commanding performance —- his voice is rich with character, affecting the heroic pomp of the character he’s playing without resorting to pure theatrics. Hear the way he shout-sings “…since 1992!”, a minor detail but something that makes me crack a smile every time I hear it. Credit to bandleader/songwriter Christopher Bowes, who quite simply HAD to deliver the band’s most catchy, anthemic, and yes powerful song if he insisted on it being about the band’s namesake weapon. By gods he did it.
I had hoped that Roy Khan leaving Kamelot would be the most disappointing thing I’d ever have to write about, but here we are. For as nakedly political as I can get on Twitter (as those of you who follow me there can attest), I have always attempted to keep this blog mostly focused on music —- because other sites traffic in rumor and gossip enough, and there are too many excellent releases coming out to be wasting time with anything else. Recently however, its been hard to avoid the MetalSucks spawned stories, seemingly one after another, of a black metal band about to tour the US that has NSBM ties past or present and the subsequent outcry surrounding this, usually manifesting itself in calling for shows to be cancelled. Watain, Taake, Disma, Marduk, Incantation, Inquisition, Graveland, Uada… I’m sure I’m missing others, these stories have seemingly run into each other within the past couple years. The latest is Finland’s Horna, whose currently ongoing US tour is running headlong into an internet spread, Antifa-fueled protest where locals are being encouraged to call the venues, the surrounding businesses, and local media to get a particular show shut down.
I don’t listen to Horna, and had only vaguely heard of them before this controversy. But this story has hit close to home because I’m a Houstonian, and one of the stops on Horna’s US tour, April 3rd to be exact, is scheduled at a local Houston venue called The White Swan. There are a number of local Houston metal bands on the bill as support acts, including Spectral Manifest who have been around the scene here for quite a long time, whose drummer, one Cryptos Grimm is someone I personally know. In fact, he’s a friend of the MSRcast podcast I co-host with Cary the Metal Geek, primarily because he once sat in the co-host seat I now sit in. When a local media outlet called the Houston Press picked up on the Horna story from other outlets like Metalsucks, their writer Jef Rouner wrote up a piece in which he referred to Cryptos Grimm as a member of the alt-right, a description that was simply untrue. There was no minor amount of outrage that broke out on social media, where people in the Houston metal scene came to Cryptos’ defense, because not only was it kinda laughable that Cryptos of all people would be described as “alt-right”, it was a dangerously slanderous statement to just throw out there. It feels absolutely stupid and silly to have to do this, but it might help for context’s sake to know that Cary is Jewish (during Hanukkah there are menorahs all around the MSRcast studios), and that I’m of Indian descent, or as the term goes thesedays, a PoC (person of color). That’s the first time that I’ve ever had to mention my race or ancestry in relation to being a metal fan, ever. Because in multi-cultural Houston, its simply not an issue, no one cares. But I’m going to set aside Horna and black metal and everything else for a minute and just focus on this one topic —- that a guy was publicly slandered by a relatively popular (people can debate that point) local Houston publication and labeled something that he’s simply not.
The name Cryptos Grimm can easily be linked to his real name via a Google search, in fact I’m sure he’d be fine with me writing it here even though I’m not going to do that now (we’ve certainly referred to him on the podcast by it, in fact we just played a cut from Spectral’s newest EP on our last episode). I’ve known Cryptos personally since the year 2000, when I met him at a meeting for the MSRcast’s pre-podcast incarnation as the Mainstream Resistance Zine, which he along with a few others helped Cary put together. Back in those days he was also responsible for getting a local Borders Books and Music to stock a respectable metal section, and when he moved over to work at a local music store chain called Soundwaves, he oversaw the city’s best metal section at his particular location. I’d go down there after every paycheck Friday and sometimes in between to buy anything and everything. He’d recommend stuff to me and let me preview unknown albums on the store’s audio equipment so I wouldn’t blow money on something I didn’t like. I got into so many bands from that metal section, Therion, The Crown, Emperor, just too many to remember, and when Blind Guardian released A Night At The Opera, he held one of the few copies they’d received behind the counter for me. I’d go to local metal shows and sure enough every now and then I’d see Cryptos across the venue, lugging gear somewhere or talking with someone —- to say he’s been a fixture in the local metal scene here is to state the obvious. When I was running around with the Brimwylf guys, helping them load in gear and man their merch table at shows, I got to see Cryptos’ band Spectral Manifest play many times, they shared bills together all over Houston and even in San Antonio. The point here isn’t just that I know the guy personally, its that I and many others have known him for a long time now.
The writer of this story, Rouner, wrote off-handedly of his interaction with Cryptos that [he was] “one of the many local metal musicians I’ve ended up blocking from social media for his alt-right views”, but one scour of Cryptos’ social media feed would show the exact opposite. From what I gathered, they’ve probably had some disagreements in various comments sections on Facebook and Rouner blocked him in the past. When the Horna story popped up, Rouner took Cryptos’ public advocacy that the show should go on as planned as the sole evidence he needed to slander him as “alt-right”. He didn’t take the time to interview Cryptos, or ask around to other members of the local metal scene for their views on Cryptos and Spectral Manifest, for reasons I can’t even guess at. Too lazy? Too much work? Or is it more likely that in 2019, in our state of polarized discourse, if you don’t agree 100% with someone’s views, you’re automatically their sworn enemy and represent everything they’re fighting against? A few days after the original story was published, the Houston Press issued a retraction and published an updated version of the story with a note of error and apology attached, “An earlier version of this story contained some erroneous information about Cryptos Grimm, the drummer for Spectral Manifest which was opening for Horna. Grimm voted for Barack Obama twice and was a Bernie Sanders supporter. The Houston Press and the author of this story retract the previous information and apologize for the error”. The publication should get credit for the clarification even though it came as a result of being sent messages pointing out the slander, but Rouner did not apologize to Cryptos personally, and likely never will. Because of course.
I don’t think its a coincidence that this Horna story, just like all the stories surrounding the bands I listed above was something that started on one of the coasts, be it the San Francisco / Oakland Bay Area or Brooklyn. If the protests weren’t manifesting at those cities, certainly the publications that were flagging them are based out of there (MetalSucks, Noisey, Brooklyn Vegan, etc). Antifa is a big deal on the coasts, its membership is larger in those areas, so much so that there’s rival factions (the now infamous “Proud Boys” among them) who seek to spark a counter movement against what they perceive as SJW virtue signaling. The problem is these two groups clashing have resulted in violent altercations, predominantly in the two biggest hotbeds of Antifa-related activity… you guessed it, the Bay Area and Brooklyn. As a Houston based metal fan who’s been going to shows for nearly two decades now, these kind of clashes and conflicts are entirely alien to me. I’ve been to punk shows here, countless metal shows, and I’ve never seen a neo-Nazi presence manifest itself, never felt threatened due to the color of my skin even at shows by bands who’ve ultimately been singled out by MetalSucks for whatever reason such as Watain and Mayhem. The same goes for shows in San Antonio —- I saw Immortal’s last Texas appearance with Abbath there in a packed club full of a mostly Hispanic audience, and in Austin, I found myself standing right next to Watain’s Erik Danielsson while watching Tribulation open, and he shook my hand and clapped me on the back. When I walk into a show at any Houston venue, whether with friends or alone as is sometimes the case, I don’t fear for my safety and wonder if its okay that I’m there. The metal crowds here are a mix of races, ethnicities, gender/sexual orientations, and varying shades of skin color; you’re more likely to get people staring at what band is on your t-shirt than your actual face. And it doesn’t matter what bands are playing that night, the same rules apply for any, regardless of whether its the most brutal death or black metal, or the sweet syrupy sounds of Sonata Arctica.
I guess I’m in a position of ignorance in asking the question, “Is it really that different everywhere else?”. Because that just isn’t the reality that I experience. I know that Houston is perhaps the most multi-cultural city in the United States, or at least in contention to be named as such. I’m not naive enough to suggest that there aren’t pockets of racists in Houston or its surrounding areas, but I am telling you that its damn difficult to be an out and proud racist here and start conflicts in the open that revolve around someone’s race, because you’re vastly outnumbered if you do so. That brings me to another aspect of Houston and its metal community —- its diversity. I’m a bit of a people watcher at shows, so I guess I notice more than others might that at death and black metal shows in particular, a good percentage of the audience comes from the Hispanic and Latino communities, but there are also African American metalheads here, and Asian-American fans in the crowd too (not just me!). Off the top of my head I remember a gay couple at a recent show who didn’t feel intimidated into hiding their sexuality, and they were right to feel safe because no one paid them any particular attention. Its striking that some of the bands that MetalSucks has rallied against through their stories have already played Houston, at gigs I personally attended, and there were zero incidents of any kind. Well, I guess it would have been striking… had that not been the case for damn near every show that happens here.
I don’t hate Antifa. I feel strongly that someone has to stand up to neo-Nazi rallies and white supremacists like the one in Charlottesville and I think its good that Antifa have taken a stand, but I don’t like their coastal chapters inserting themselves into our local Houston music scene where they have no context on how things here really are. They are trying to work through a small local chapter of Antifa whom I’ve only now just discovered exists, but the evidence of the coastal chapters’ fingerprints are all over the Horna in Houston situation. There are Antifa Twitter feeds dedicated to channeling information about future campaigns and protests into the hands of potential local volunteers and who encourage the doxxing of venue owners, promoters, and other local businesses. And they wouldn’t like this ugly truth, but as someone who’s been to metal shows on weeknights here in town, the reality is that had MetalSucks never put the spotlight on this Horna tour, the band’s aforementioned Wednesday night Houston show would’ve probably come and gone with minimal attendance. How can I be so sure? Because it was scheduled at The White Swan for starters, your apartment might be bigger than that venue. My bedroom closet is certainly bigger than its bathroom. Its in a part of Houston a lot of folks don’t want to drive to, with extremely sketchy neighborhood parking (hope you don’t get towed or broken into), and for gods sake, it was a Wednesday night. Houston’s a big, nay vast city that inspires some internal convincing to get in your car and drive across. I’m sorry to pierce whatever Hollywood inspired vision Antifa had in their minds for these shows, that there’d be dudes with swastika patches and iron cross tattoos walking around pounding on the predominantly African-American population in the neighborhood the venue is located in. This grand fantasy where a tiny metal show would blossom into an alt-right festival of racist hatred. That only Antifa could show up and match them fist for fist in some Green Day American Idiot inspired punk street opera. No… just no. Horna would have lugged their gear on that tiny corner stage, played their set to a very small, likely racially diverse audience who would have some beers from that ice chest (there’s no bar there), maybe someone would’ve even BBQ-ed on the grill in the back, and then everyone would’ve gone home, and Horna would have packed up and left town.
But since the MetalSucks article went viral and stirred up Antifa, and the word went out on social media, the possibilities for what could happen at this show are dangerously up in the air. A spotlight has been shown on this event now that continues even after its original location at The White Swan has been cancelled. The show will now take place at a secret location, most likely a house somewhere and attendees will be tipped off a few hours before the show, I’d guess most likely through private channels at first and then publicly on social media. But word will get out, and apparently if the back and forth threats I’m seeing online are to be believed, Antifa or maybe just Antifa sympathizers will be seeking the location of this show with the intent to shut it down. And the folks who are going to the show are responding with their own threats, goading them to show up and “see what happens”. And there we go. What would’ve been a largely ignored event, that would’ve come and gone like the neighborhood ice cream truck is now being highlighted as a place to come for a fight. And I’m looking at Facebook comment threads right now where local metal fans who didn’t plan on going to this gig in the first place are now specifically making plans to show up to see what happens or worse, get involved in something. This would be comically ridiculous if it weren’t a little scary, with the kind of vitriolic discussion surrounding an upcoming gig that I have never seen in all my time going to shows in this city. And hopefully maybe nothing bad will happen, the band will play (to a slightly larger crowd, congrats Antifa), and online chest thumping will be left at that. Lets hope so.
I don’t know whats more troubling to me: The possibility that violence could occur at a Houston metal show over something started by people who don’t even live in Houston or the surrounding areas. Or that someone I know could be tarred as a member of the alt-right when he’s far from it by someone who lives in the same city but couldn’t give a damn about the consequences of his actions. What is happening to everyone? Why can’t we just talk about these issues within the metal scene, particularly when we all have the platforms to do so? Why can’t MetalSucks use its very popular platform to contextualize a debate about this issue, maybe even invite these bands to come on their podcast and talk about things? Why just the instant doxx-ready articles with pointed social media references to Antifa social media? Here’s a question, since its already happened to someone I know: Does everyone who attends the Horna show in Houston instantly get labelled as neo-Nazi sympathizers? Who gets to decide that? Will photographs be taken of them and uploaded online for Facebook’s facial recognition software to tag them with? Will those photos and names go viral afterwards for the concert goers’ friends and families and employers to see and simply assume the worst about them? Aren’t there bigger problems that Antifa can be dealing with or planning on protesting? Why can’t they channel their efforts on community service and a few peaceful, non-confrontational awareness efforts to build trust in local communities? We’ve got a situation going on in the country now where right-wing media and the President himself label Antifa as agitators and violence prone troublemakers, and I don’t see Antifa themselves doing anything to change that image. Shouldn’t they?
Most metal fans are by default anti-facist (yes, I’m making that statement and stand behind it), but Antifa does little to endear themselves to metal fans and possibly engage them as participants or recruits when they’re shutting down metal shows. The economics of European bands touring the United States already keeps so many of our favorite artists away from the very realistic possibility that a US tour turns out to be a financial black hole for them. Look, I don’t care a whit about Horna, but I do care about other metal bands from Finland, three of whom I’m seeing this week (Children of Bodom / Swallow the Sun / Wolfheart). If promoters decide that the risk of taking on bands from Scandinavian countries in general is too risky because they wouldn’t want to get shut down by some Antifa activity they can’t see coming, they might decide to not take a risk on any band from that region. That’s not fair to those bands, but more importantly that’s not fair to American metal fans. Before you say I’m being ridiculous, consider the plight of folk-metal band Tyr well over a decade ago, when neo-Nazi’s began using their music for their own propaganda videos and it got the band banned across Germany and parts of Europe. They had zero neo-Nazi affiliations themselves, but the taint on them nearly ruined their career and took years of a concerted media campaign to erase entirely. But in the social media era of 2019, anything goes. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Antifa turned its sights on a band like Sabaton, whose history nerd meets power metal storytelling pulls in one of the most widely diverse crowds I’ve ever seen. They have songs about World War II, and yes that includes referencing the military forces of Nazi Germany, certainly not songs of pro-Nazi sentiment, but an accusation could be made and that association could do serious damage to one of the most cheerful metal bands to ever prance on a stage. Can you honestly say its not a possibility?
I don’t know if its possible right now to discuss Antifa with a critical eye and not be labeled as a neo-Nazi sympathizer. Metal twitter in all its grossness doesn’t have an eye towards subtlety and nuance in its various discussions, which is why I’m choosing to publish my thoughts here. Yes I’m defending a guy who’s going to drum for a band that’s opening for Horna on Wednesday night. Cryptos is more aggressive about it than I am, but I think we’re on the same spectrum of thinking in that shutting down concerts isn’t a productive way to fight against facism and neo-Nazi beliefs. Talk about it? Sure. Debate it intelligently online in a civilized manner? Yes absolutely. But to doxx local venue owners and create an atmosphere where violence could break out is the antithesis of what the local Houston metal scene has been about. When I was a teenager and was reading about black metal for the first time, the name Burzum would pop up a lot as being crucial to the subgenre’s history. So when I finally saw a copy of Filosofem in the record store, I bought it. For a long time Varg Vikernes’ exploits were more of a wild crazy story to me, and when I first started this blog I even reviewed his initial post-prison releases. But as time passed and Varg became more outspoken about his views in documentaries and his YouTube channel, I became more thoughtful about how maybe I shouldn’t cover his music at all and made the decision to stop. I learned more about his beliefs and made a personal choice to stop supporting him in any way, even with mere words. Presumably MetalSucks undertook a similar process seeing as they once supported Horna, or even Taake for that matter. Though it seems like they went in the opposite direction, and in doing so have shined an even greater spotlight on these issues, even potentially galvanizing them into polarizing conflicts. For years and years, NSBM was just something that scraped by an existence in the darkened corners of extreme undergrounds as Exhumed’s Matt Harvey pointed out in his 2017 Decibel op-ed, it wasn’t a growing movement. So why are we risking breathing new life into it by exposing it to a wider alt-right / Proud Boys audience who didn’t know about its very existence until now?
Hey everyone, back from a self-imposed break I purposefully wanted to take in starting start off 2019. I’ve given my ears a long layover from the release calendar grind and indulged in things I missed throughout last year (recommended to me by our two guests on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind episode and elsewhere). I think its a nigh impossible task for anyone to stay on top of everything, and one of the things that podcast demonstrated was just how many different directions all four of us spiraled off to listening wise. The resulting handful of recommendations below is a wildly diverse variety of approaches to metal, and I’ve tried to avoid going into review mode here so hopefully you’ll be intrigued enough to just give them a shot on your own. And then there’s a handful of non-metal recommendations I’ve included as a bit of a bonus, the stuff I listened to last year to cleanse my musical palette after too much metal. I’ve only once written something about non-metal music here on the blog, an ignored review for the soundtrack to the PS3 game Journey. I’ve always wanted to write more about the non-metal side of what I listen to, because its a wide variety of stuff, but have feared scaring away readers or just confusing things. This seems like the perfect time and post to include some of that stuff, and hopefully someone will get something out of it (let me know in the comments below if you do!). For those that are wondering, new 2019 reviews are coming soon, including some major names early in the year —- thanks for reading!
Stuff I Missed in 2018
Harakiri For The Sky – Arson:
Introduced and recommended by Justin on the aforementioned MSRcast episode, my first taste of this strangely named Austrian two piece post-black metal band came that night during our recording session when we played two tracks from it before recording. I’m not normally into this kind of stuff, but I think Harakiri’s emphasis on riffery is a big part of why I’m slowly getting addicted to this album. While I can’t pinpoint individual songs yet, I find the entire record immersive in that deep, background kinda way, something that you hear reveal itself when you’re multitasking doing something else. I’ve seen Insomnium used as a touchstone in describing this album so often in various reviews that its reaching cliche status but its also incredibly spot on. They don’t crank up the sweetness on the melodic side of things in the same melodeath way the Finns do, but they apply the same principles of songwriting to strikingly different effect. This has been a big chunk of my soundtrack to the last few weeks during my little break, and while I haven’t investigated anything else they’ve done in the past yet, I will be making a point to move onto their back catalog soon.
1914 – The Blind Leading The Blind:
Recommended to me by Cary the Metal Geek, the Ukranian 1914 are newcomers by metal standards, this being their sophomore album a scant three years after their debut. They’re an intriguing band on a number of levels, the first being their absolutely stone faced committment to the lyrical and visual theme of World War I. Metal bands like Sabaton have made a career of exploring historical themes before, but 1914 deep dive into this history exclusively, focusing on the sheer brutality and carnage of that conflict with its introduction of mechanization and trench warfare in a way that is far more explicit than anything Joakim Broden would dare touch. Then there’s their blending of death metal riffs with an affinity for black metal’s sense of grandeur, often set to blistering tempos but just as often slowed down in doomy fashion to emulate the grinding march of slow moving machinery. There are a number of carefully chosen sound effects, samples, and audio dialogue interspersed throughout to conjure an atmosphere that is weirdly anachronistic. That coupled with fresh, fearless extreme metal songwriting that doesn’t care about subgenre rules and boundaries has made this one of my most listened to “missed” albums of 2018, one that everyone owes it to themselves to check out. Better late than never.
Elderwind – The Colder The Night:
I believe it was one of the guys in the r/PowerMetal Discord that recommended Elderwind to me, catching my attention with a description that was somewhere along the lines of “Wintersun meets Summoning”. And yeah, that’s about spot on, because we could simplify Elderwind as atmospheric black metal, but there’s a ton of stuff in that specific subgenre that sounds nothing like this. What informs The Colder The Night (so glad the band translated the title from the original Russian for the benefit of everyone) is a transcendent sense of tranquility and celebratory uplift, something I could easily hear associated with Wintersun and their similar use of keyboard heavy melodies and atmospherics. The band’s obvious debt to Summoning with their commitment to epic scope and meditative, hypnotic tempos are heard throughout, but unlike fantasy literature based themes, Elderwind write almost exclusively about nature and its ability to inspire and cause inward reflection. Actually, the album art here is as spot on a visual interpretation of Elderwind’s music as you can imagine, a still lake, clear skies to see the stars, and some travelers warming themselves by a fire to ward off the night chill. When the “super blood wolf moon” eclipse occurred last week, I had this record on my headphones as I stood outside in the cold staring up. It was mental insulation.
In The Woods… – Cease The Day:
This was a surprise to many of us at MSRcast / Metal Geeks, a release that not only impressed all of us who were on the MSRcast 2018 Rewind, but also George Tripsas of the Metal Geeks podcast (he the subject of that show’s George Hates Metal segment). Anything that swayed George had to be worth a further look, so I did, and I’ll admit that the surprisingly lengthy history of this Norwegian band was unknown to me. They started way back in 1991, with members of another storied gothic metal band you may or may not have heard of called Green Carnation (whom I’ve been told I need to check out as a Sentenced fan). No matter, the album we’re concerned with right now is Cease The Day, a progressive blackened doom album with a mix of Grutle Kjellson-ian harsh vocals and Dan Swano-esque clean singing. At times I’m even reminded of classic late 90s, early 2000s Opeth in parts, because similarly to Akerfeldt, these guys aren’t afraid of pushing melodies and harmonies up front in the mix. There’s an intelligence and thoughtfulness to the songwriting too, and on cuts like “Cloud Seeder” the band wisely knows when to strip things back to just a meaty, rockin’ riff. One of the most surprising, out of left field records that sailed under my radar last year.
Temperance – Of Jupiter And Moons:
Italy’s Temperance are one of those non-guilty pleasures, an unabashedly melodic power metal band that owes equal parts to their bombastic countrymen in Rhapsody as they do to vocal heavy Avantasia or Amaranthe. That they’re not quite a cross section of those bands is also testament to their ability to stand apart on their own songwriting strengths. There’s three singers here, guitarist/songwriter Marco Pastorino, and two solo lead vocalists in Michele Guaitoli and Alessia Scolletti, and they carry these songs on their backs. This is the kind of band that you simply have to love vocal melodies and ear candy to enjoy, because even though things are suitably metallic around them and the odd beefy riff cuts through their velvety cloth, its a vocalists showcase for sure. This album came out back in April of last year, and it was introduced to me just a few weeks ago when the folks in the aforementioned r/PowerMetal Discord were cobbling their best of lists together. There was a lot of interesting stuff popping up from various lists that I hadn’t heard yet, and some of it I really liked (shout out to the Guardians of Time record!), but I kept coming back to Temperance in particular for the sheer fun of it.
After I cobbled together this list of non-metal recommendations, it dawned on me that all the artists I chose were women or in the case of Chvrches, a band fronted by a woman. I’m not entirely sure why that is, and I’m just realizing it now but I guess its safe to say that my non-metal music listening tends to lean this way a lot. I’m not against listening to a guy in this context, and many of the regular “rock” stuff I listen to falls into that category (Weezer, Wilco, and many other bands that don’t start with a “W” for that matter). Maybe its needing to seek a balance after listening to metal which is largely male dominated, or perhaps its simply coincidence that these awesome artists happened to be women. I’m open to further non-metal recommendations, lady or guy oriented.
Sometime in the mid to late 90s, as I was in the blossoming of an underground metal fandom, I also had friends who didn’t listen to metal or even rock at all. Through hanging out with them I was introduced wide-eyed to electronic music of all stripes, particularly when one of them made me a copy of both volumes of the Hackers soundtrack. I soon began making the odd purchase here and there, Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works, Paul Oakenfold, Orbital, Chicane, and even though its half-electronic the entire back catalog of pop masters Saint Etienne. It was all music that complemented my metal listening, even though I might not have realized it at the time, because I didn’t mention most of it to my metal loving friends. I’ve dropped in and out of that world as far as exploration goes over the years, there was always too much metal to listen to and not enough time. But two years ago I finally clicked on a Chvrches video that YouTube was recommending for me(!) when I was deep in a nostalgia trip and listening to BT’s “Remember”. I had seen the name so often throughout the past few years and always thought its spelling was some indie-rock band stealing a bit from metal culture so I would scoff and ignore it.
It was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover, because my simple aversion to a name (which I quite like now) nearly kept me from music that I now can’t do without. Chvrches are considered synth-pop as a simple genre tag, but to me they hearken back to what I loved about listening to electronic music in the 90’s, conjuring up that sense of futurism and looking at the world through a science fiction sheen tint. But its singer Lauren Mayberry’s crystalline vocals and skill at penning unforgettable vocal melodies that really pulled me in. Her two bandmates handle the electronics, creating stripped back electronic beds that pulse, shake, and shimmer in some Tokyo-esque fever dream of sound, but Lauren’s voice is simultaneously capable of sounding robotic and utterly human. I love all three of their albums, the latest one having been released in 2018, and I could easily have picked a song from any of them to post above as a sampler. I listened to the new album while driving around Austin in the middle of the night after last May’s Orphaned Land / Tyr concert there, half delirious with exhaustion and euphoria, it was the perfect tonic for the moment, and it soundtracked a lot of last year for me. But I’ve chosen my all-time favorite Chvrches song, “Leave A Trace”, from their 2015 sophomore record, because its the quintessence of everything I love about this band.
Florence and the Machine
I think there’s a lot of pop music out there that metal fans would appreciate mainly because of a shared depth in artistry, musicality, and sheer thoughtfulness in the songwriting. This is probably not news to some of you, but I know people who only listen to metal exclusively, and while I applaud their dedication, I wonder how they can only experience life in that one (admittedly very wide) musical/emotional spectrum. I have no idea where I stumbled onto Florence and the Machine some many years ago, but this band has been a salve that I reapply again and again when I need to feel something else. The emotional spectrum in this case can run the gamut of euphoria, deep affirmation, or as in the case of the gorgeous song above, ache and longing that only a voice like Florence Welch’s can conjure up. That her vocals are adorned with a kaleidoscope of rich musicality is what makes her music transcendent, and not just merely pleasing to the ear.
I went to see Florence and the Machine at the Woodlands Pavilion back in September, it was my first time getting to see her live. The “Machine”, her band that is pretty much stayed in one position on the stage, not drawing attention to themselves. Not being used to pop shows, that took a little getting used to, although to be fair some metal bands are cardboard cutouts on stage too. Florence on the other hand, was captivating to watch, seemingly constantly in motion while never sounding fatigued or out of breath. Her voice live rings right through your chest, she might have been one of the most powerful vocalists in a performance setting that I’ve ever seen. At one point she ran through the aisles in the crowd, passing within mere yards of me when she leaned against one of the pavilion support pillars next to our section. She was singing “What Kind of Man”, a horn punctuated rock anthem, and she somehow made the circuit around the amphitheater in the span of that three and half minutes. She told short quips about why she wrote some songs, politely asked in charming British humor if everyone could put away their phones (and they did!), and she played my favorite song off the new album, the one I posted above, and everyone forgot to breathe for five minutes.
I’ve been listening to Neko Case for awhile now, ever since I got a promo of Blacklisted way back in 2002 sometime. Think of a dark, alt-country Tori Amos without all the piano and you’re somewhere near the ballpark —- the truth is her voice is incomparable and unmistakable once you’ve heard it. That she writes such mellifluous songs with strange, evocative lyrics is what makes her a transcendent artist. Her music is warm toned, with a perfect balance of rustic, loose, live instrumentation and incredible richness in mixing and production. I’ve enjoyed every one of her albums, some more than others, case in point being my belief that she’ll never top 2009’s Middle Cyclone. The song I posted above is actually a cover of a Crooked Fingers song that was famously covered by The National and St. Vincent. On Neko’s version, she duets with its original songwriter, ‘Finger’s own Eric Bachmann in a stripped down version that swaps guitar for spare piano. If you’ve heard those previous two versions, you’ll know just how much Neko’s interpretation (and to his credit, Bachmann’s own performance on it) far surpasses them. Her instincts in knowing that piano would resonate more than formless acoustic guitar, and just how to handle the vocal layering in their duet to steep it in her musical world is genius. The result is a song that’s a sonic portrait of loneliness and heartbreak, awash in nostalgia that would make even Steven Wilson proud.
Where to start here, and how to possibly keep this brief? I’ve been a huge, huge admirer of Sarah Brightman ever since an EMI rep gifted me with a free copy of her La Luna record way back in 2000 (and a promotional candle I still have #fanboy). She’s known for the eternal classic “Time To Say Goodbye” and for her role in the 80’s run of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, but I love her for her solo career that began in 1993. She has throughout her solo discography released thematic albums; the aquatic Dive, futuristic Fly, the classical London Symphony accompanied Timeless, the Italian aria steeped Eden, the lunar imagery of La Luna, the Middle-Eastern musical influence on Harem, a Gothic tinge on Symphony, the nostalgia-space race informed Dreamchaser, and last year’s spirituality informed Hymn. You get the idea. The themes are guides, not rails she has to cling to, so they might inform the lyrics, some of the music here and there, and certainly the photography and imagery of the album artwork (right up a metal fan’s alley). They make every release intriguing to dive into, but her evergreen angelic vocal ability and the influence of her longtime producer Frank Petersen (of Enigma/Gregorian fame) ensure that her sonic world is familiar and comforting.
Her new album is interesting in that its a purposeful throwback to her 1997 era, a classically drenched album that even revisits “Time To Say Goodbye”, this time slowed down and with the lyrics in complete English to really understand the sadness inherent in a song that most people think of as triumphant. She’s said in interviews regarding this album that it was a purposeful response to the bleakness of the emotional state of the world at the moment. She sought to return some of that lightness and euphoria back to her sound, which admittedly can run all across the emotional spectrum (her vocal hue often masks some really forlorn lyrics, think ABBA). I know some of you will back away slowly after reading this recommendation, but I think part of the reason I love Sarah’s work so much is the depth and artistry that informs the songs she chooses to sing, and as later in her career, the ones she helps to co-write. That and she practically defines the word epic, an aspect of metal I’m quite sure we all love. To that end, some of the most powerful moments of her musical catalog are gorgeously cinematic, stirring with such orchestral swell and grandeur that its enough to give you a knot in your throat. Even if the lyric she’s singing at the moment seems remote to you personally, her voice brings you to wherever she wants you to be with her, and you are powerless to fight it.
One of my oldest friends introduced me to Loreena McKennitt in 1997, when he bought her Book of Secrets album and I heard it at his house and was transfixed. For my younger self, that album was the first foray into buying non rock/pop music, but also the opening of a window to a larger world of cultural music that I’d quickly grow to love. Its an oversimplification to say that Loreena McKennitt is Celtic music, as she’s so often tagged in anything written about her. She’s interested in the history of the Celts and how their music has changed throughout history, but also of those other cultures they came into contact with. Her sound then is a mix of far ranging cultures all tethered together with the strength of her haunting voice. Case in point is the song posted above from last year’s Lost Souls, where subtle Spanish rhythms and acoustic guitar styles inform a rustic string led ballad. It was her first studio album in eight years, and although I’d rather not have near decade long waits for new music from her, its somewhat par for course with the way she works. Loreena actually travels to a range of countries and regions for research, and she gives you a taste of this in the diary entries she often places excerpts from in her liner notes, each entry from some wildly vivid locale. I’m pretty sure I read every single bit of the Book of Secrets liner notes a few times over, and to this day, its one of my favorite albums of all time full stop, I’d recommend starting there but you can’t go wrong with any of her stuff.