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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved Antichrist: Therion Redefine The Metal Opera

You might not know this, but I’m a massive Therion fan, as in they’re one of my top five favorite metal bands of all time kinda massive. Sadly, in the seven years this blog has been going, I’ve gotten to write about them just a handful of times. Now that’s partially my own fault for not getting around to doing that retrospective I’d planned for them years back, but its mostly because the band’s last studio release was way back in 2012 with their classic French pop covers art project Les Fleurs du Mal, and their last studio album of original material two years prior to that with Sitra Ahra. Previously, their longest gap between releases was three years, but to their credit we did get a warning —- founder/guitarist Christofer Johnsson telling us way back in September of 2012 that “there won’t be any new regular album… not until we have finished the rock (metal) opera, performed it live as much as we can, taken a break and then put together a regular album again. That will take a couple of years, for sure. So we are closing an era and opening a new period that will be quite different”. It was a fairly surprising statement that at the time stunned and dismayed many Therion fans, myself included, because I think we all wondered why this opera project had to come at the expense of new Therion music. But it was out of our control, and so began the long wait, and good god what a wait its been. I didn’t think he meant six years! Maybe he didn’t either.

 

I gave Wintersun’s Jari Maenpaa a fair amount of criticism for his continued delays regarding Time II, and even referenced Therion’s Christofer Johnsson as an example within the symphonic metal world of someone to replicate in terms of logistics and finances. I bring this up here because I can feel that a few of you might remember that and all too rightfully want to throw that back in my face right now. I still think my example of Johnsson’s operating methods in terms of recording complicated material was absolutely spot on in relation to Wintersun’s Time II dilemma, but it raises the question: Does Johnsson deserve to be equally criticized for the significant amount of time he’s taken to release a project that is sharply dividing opinions within the fan base and greater metal community in general? I think it can be argued that yes, taking six years (eight if we account for original material) to release something that isn’t a new album in the traditional sense is far too long, and though no one disputes Johnsson’s right to do that, we don’t have to like it! Here I’ll point out that I’ve been hearing about Blind Guardian’s yet to be released “orchestral project” since late 2001, when I first heard Hansi mention it in an interview promoting the then newly released “And Then There Was Silence” single. Yes, that project has been cooking in the background for nearly two decades(!), its genesis taking root in the writing sessions for 1998’s Nightfall In Middle Earth. It hasn’t had a vice grip around the band’s activities however —- they’ve moved along at their new album every four-five years standard clip, even delivering a straight up masterpiece with 2010’s At The Edge of Time. I’ve seen the band live four times here in Houston in that intervening time as well, they’ve been regularly touring the world with each release. And whenever they’re asked, they tell us the same thing: Work on their orchestral project continues, it’ll be released when its done.

 

 

It might be unfair to bring up the Blind Guardian example, because everyone works differently, and maybe Johnsson is the kind of artist who wants to only focus on one thing with maximum intensity for a lengthy period of time. I get that, and respect it. I just wonder if he ever considered the other route, of making this a long burning project that he’d work on in the off-times from normal Therion albums and tours, even if it did take twenty plus years? The discussion is moot of course, because here we are with Beloved Antichrist in its finished, recorded form, but there are plans to stage this somewhere and ambitions to see it take on a life of its own as an opera entity separate from Therion. We’re realistically looking at another three to four years before a new Therion album could potentially come to fruition… that’ll make it ten plus years since Sitra Ahra, a heck of a timescale for any rock/metal band not named Guns N’ Roses. The reactions that I’ve seen to Beloved Antichrist have been as polarizing as you’d expect, and on the US Power Metal Connection Facebook group they were particularly blunt and forthright with their nearly overwhelming disapproval. I was even provided with some insight by a classically trained soprano as to why in her opinion Therion’s opera was terrible even by opera standards, never mind the metal ones. I should add that all the opinions on this group were stated pretty respectfully… you can only imagine the stuff written elsewhere.

 

One of the recurrent themes among all those on that Facebook group who discussed Beloved Antichrist unfavorably was what can only be best described as ‘bewilderment meets impatience’. The criticism I saw frequently repeated was that the rhythm guitars came across as plodding, repetitive, and used more as a percussive/tempo device than an inspired riff delivery system. I understood that criticism because I too focused on the guitars during my initial first few listens through the entirety of the opera, honestly for awhile there it felt like all I was hearing was simplistic rhythm guitar and a load of operatic vocals in pieces of music that felt untethered to anything —- be it a melody or a motif. Everything sounded rather amorphous, that is a big mess of sound that was hard to get a hold of, to find something that hooked you. What was exacerbating that impression was the daunting length of this project itself, spanning three discs and clocking in at just over three hours of music, it was certainly understandable that many people took a single pass through it (or maybe even skipped around), and decided that once was enough. Metal fans do have a tendency to be patient and follow the principle that it often takes multiple listens for something complex to reveal itself, but I think the three hour running time was a hurdle that was too lengthy for many to attempt.

 

 

The thing is that Beloved Antichrist is really an opera —- I know that might be stating the obvious but it needs to be reiterated again: It is an OPERA. Full stop. What we’re listening to here is the soundtrack to an opera that has yet to be staged, not a “metal opera” in the way we’ve come to know them via Avantasia or Ayreon, which have always struck me as more theatrically inclined concept albums closer to musical theater than anything resembling opera. Okay so if we view it in this light, where does that leave you and me as metal fans? I don’t know about you, but my experience with opera is limited to watching a few of them on PBS during those late night insomnia years, and I actually did enjoy them (they were subtitled) and didn’t click off after a few minutes. The one thing I remember absolutely not digging were the parts where dialogue was being sung, seemingly without regard to crafting a melody, an aspect I can now recognize as the “recitative”. But that’s really it, I know precious little about the history, structure, and appreciation of opera. I know what arias are, mostly because I have an unabashed love of Sarah Brightman’s solo albums, which tended to feature the inclusion of a few arias from various operas in addition to her original material. I’ve been a fan of hers dating back twenty years now, when I first saw her on PBS (yes, again) singing “Time To Say Goodbye” with Andrea Bocelli. She was my gateway into classical music alongside film soundtracks, and through her I started listening to Maria Callas, Anna Netrebko, and José Cura. Its not much of a classical education, but its a start.

 

A few Thursdays ago, I sat down to listen to this behemoth of a recording with that thought process in mind: “I’m listening to the soundtrack of a play that hasn’t been staged yet”. It wasn’t me trying to learn Finnish in one day, it was just a simple, subtle shift in mindset to prepare myself for how I would try to process what I was hearing. It worked. Suddenly the simplistic rhythm guitars weren’t grabbing my attention first and foremost, but everything else was. I heard the melodies circulating through the string sections, the dramatic punctuation of the horn sections and pounding timpani, and I was paying attention to a story being told through the vocalists. Within that I found some beautiful music —- a stellar example coming in early on the third track “Through Dust, Through Rain”, where an instrument I can’t quite define accompanies a gorgeous soprano vocal, backed by an ebb and flow of quiet strings. There’s a moment here where a lonely piano figure breaks through fleetingly, like a ray of sun through the overcast and its so lonely sounding, so effective at stirring up feelings of melancholy and heartbreak. These micro moments are why I’m a Therion fan, because somehow Johnsson has an endless supply of them, even if they have no metallic context whatsoever. Its an early highlight, and although its not technically an aria (being a dialogue between two characters rather than one), its something that I could see sung out of context in a classical program by someone like Sarah Brightman no less (is my fanboy showing?).

 

 

These moments of musical bliss are scattered everywhere, as on the opening strings during “Signs Are Here”, serene yet suggestive of some tumult down the road. Then there’s the choral vocal hook in “Never Again”, with just enough of a catchy, solidly Therion-ized guitar riff anchoring things underneath to provide it with a gritty earthiness. There’s a wild display of sturm und drang on “The Crowning of Splendour”, pitting its male operatic vocal leads against a spiraling build up of guitars and a thunderous orchestral arrangement. Another male lead vocal moment worth hearing again is on “Our Destiny”, which is structured far more closely to a verse/chorus format than any other piece of music here. Its very Therion-esque too, from its charismatic vocal melody to the distinctive melodic signatures present in its expressive guitar passages (even a brief glimpse of a guitar solo here!). It has a martial drum segue into “Anthem”, where Thomas Vikstrom as Seth (the Antichrist) leads us with a solo vocal over somber strings, and this sequence soon runs headlong into an explosive metal passage that invokes memories of an old Therion classic in “Wine of Aluqah”, down to the percussive tempos and the wild guitar patterns. The love dialogue in “Jewels From Afar” between Helena and Seth is set to bright major chords loosely strummed on chiming acoustic guitars, a welcome break from riff based rhythmic structures that results in some pretty melodies.

 

If you’re looking for another Therion-ized to the max slice of music, revisit “The Arrival of Apollonius” with its very Secret of the Runes style mid-tempo rhythm guitar structures and epic choral vocals. There’s some remarkable detail here: An affecting solemn horn intro and nimble female operatic vocals during the 2:08 – 2:23 stretch to name a pair. Regarding the latter, the staccato guitars actually work pretty well in this passage, they have purpose and a even deliver a nice tail-off at the end of the riff sequence. Those looking for riffs will find a solid one in “Night Reborn” as well as “Temple of New Jerusalem”, the latter of which got the focus track treatment with a lyric video. Its simple yet hooky riff pattern segues into an actual bridge and chorus sequence, joining “Our Destiny” as the most traditional song on offer. The chorus was a little lacking to me overall, but the unexpectedly joyful guitar outburst at the 3:30 mark is worth coming back for. But guitars don’t always steal the show: I love the usage of piano on “Dagger of God”, the keys expressive and elegant; and the conjoined bombastic orchestral effort on “The Lions Roar” is impactful, those thundering timpanis and french horns working in concert to effect grandeur and majesty. And its the choir vocals that make “Bringing the Gospel” so compelling, and I appreciate that the rhythm guitar goes in unpredictable directions here, altering its staccato patterns with accelerating riffing. And I wish that the intro sequence of “Laudate Dominum” could repeat throughout its entire five minute running time, those sweeping strings follow an absolutely beautiful melody, sprightly and refreshing amidst so much darkness throughout the rest of the opera.

 

 

But I’m over here going on about all these other instruments, and you’re probably wondering “Where’s the metal at Pigeon?”. Well check out “Behold Antichrist” for an awesome circular riff and the Therion-ized lead guitar overlays and solos that definitely push this more towards the metal end of the opera metal spectrum, particular at the 2:04 mark with an amazing Christian Vidal solo. I get Gothic Kabbalah flashbacks when listening to “Cursed By The Fallen”, not only from its female soloists but its juxtaposing beefy trad metal riffs alongside woodwind led musical bridges. The heaviest metallic moment comes in “Astral Sophia”, with its doomy, darkened riffing and foreboding male choral vocals, the song taking on quiet/loud dynamics throughout quite effectively. And then there’s “Shoot Them Down!”, which is described by Johnsson as being the music for a street revolution scene, and he purposefully invoked what he describes as “Motörhead-goes-opera”. Its a solid, 80s influenced throwback riff that anchors the song in a set tempo and is able to sustain interest on its own without vocal help. Speaking of riffs, “Rise to War” has an excellent one hidden behind its operatic intro, striking at the 1:33 minute mark like something off an Accept album. There’s metal aplenty to be found here, but its rarely concentrated in one spot as you can see, hence the push and pull of a true metal opera.

 

Not everything works as a standalone musical piece, and although most of these pieces of music are dialogues between one or more characters, you really can play spot the recitative. Scenes such as “Pledging Loyalty”, “What Is Wrong?”, and in particular “Morning Has Broken” are tough listens. Regarding the latter, its vocal melody is so drawn out and tortured, the vocalists almost sound like they’re singing out of tune. To his credit, Johnsson has found a way to incorporate dialogue in a way that is largely interesting and engaging on a musical level, with short melodies that support chunks of dialogue or wrap around them. But every now and then you’ll stumble upon something where he just couldn’t pull it off well enough, and while it may be perfectly functional in the context of a stage performance, these pieces of music stick out in the context of this soundtrack. The inverse is also true in singling out scenes where the music is absolutely sublime, even daring to challenge some of the greatest work Therion has ever recorded. I’m thinking specifically of the epic vocal duet on “Seeds of Time” and the opera highlight of highlights “To Shine Forever”, both towards the end of the tracklisting. The former is an elegiac, melancholic performance from Vikstrom and Chiara Malvestiti as Johanna in what has to be the opera’s final act aria. I simply love “To Shine Forever” however, with its heartbreaking blend of chiming minor key acoustic guitars, sweeping brushstroke strings, and by far the most affecting choral vocal melody on Beloved Antichrist.

 

 

Okay, enough dissection… I knew that was going to take a long time (46 tracks!) but the truth is that my own evidence of enjoying this work won’t really matter a ton to most of you. There’s a couple things I understand now about Beloved Antichrist, and the first is that it simply won’t be for some people and that doesn’t make those people wrong in the slightest. If you heard this expecting a metal opera more in line with what Avantasia has been terming operas with their many albums, I understand being under or overwhelmed by this thing. If you were wanting a new Therion album in the vein that we’re all accustomed to and you walked away from this after one listen thinking its an utter abomination, you’re justified in that opinion. Heck one of the hallmarks of classic Therion is being able to enjoy the instrumental aspect of the band on an equal level to the vocal arrangements, and this opera is mostly a vocal affair due to its very nature. Is it what I wanted out of a six/eight year absence of new Therion music? No not really, but its what we got, and as a die-hard fan who’s gotten so much out of their previous work on a personal level, the least I could do here was give it more than a couple tries. It paid off for me to a degree, but its understandable that it won’t for everyone.

 

I’ll point out one final thing though —- remember when the Lord of the Rings soundtracks were released a few months before each of the three movies eventually debuted in the Decembers of 2001-2003? I’d eagerly buy them on their release dates and pour through them, and they’d get me excited for the movies and I would think “Yeah, these sound good”. But they didn’t really mean as much to me then as they did after I had seen their corresponding films and had a chance to attach pieces of music to those epic scenes that melted mine and many other geeks’ hearts. The Stranger Things soundtrack would just be a weird mix of classic 80s songs and bizarre electronic music if we listened to it without watching the show and being charmed stupid. And without Top Gun’s electric volleyball and Tom Cruise hi-fiving Anthony Edwards montage, Kenny Loggins “Playing With The Boys” would be… well, still a terrible song… okay so it doesn’t work for everything. But you get the gist. Context helps, particularly with soundtracks! If you hated Beloved Antichrist upon first listen, maybe check out its stage production (hopefully that happens) if you’re in Europe somewhere, or for an easier method, come back to this in a few months when in the mood for something classical.

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

 

What a year, its feels like its both taken forever to get through and yet passed in the blink of an eye. I was a bit concerned halfway through around the early summer when I realized that it was a little light on noteworthy releases. My worries were premature however, as 2017 was backloaded in a staggering way, causing myself to pick up the pace in the late summer and early fall just to keep up. The process of putting together my year end lists this time was a bit strange, because I felt that my nominees pool for the albums list was a little shorter than I’d expected, while the songs list was way more stacked than it normally is. I keep written nominee lists for songs and albums going throughout the year, both so I can throw my choices in whenever I’m feeling like I’ve come across a contender, and (primarily) so I don’t have to trawl through my own blog come December to see if I’ve missed anything. As usual, I relied on iTunes stats for play counts to keep myself honest, but this year instinct really led the way. The following songs on this list just stood out clearly among the other nominees and they are absolutely worth a few minutes of your time. Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the best albums list coming soon, before year’s end is the goal!

 

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2017:

 

 

 

1.   “To Your Brethren In The Dark” – Satyricon (from the album Deep Calleth Upon Deep):

 

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

 

 

Not only is “To Your Brethren In The Dark” the emotional core of Satyricon’s controversial masterpiece Deep Calleth Upon Deep, its one of the defining songs of their career. Its almost slow-dance like tempo is hypnotic, its spiraling ascending and descending melodic phrasing eerie and suggestive, working to strengthen the captivating allure of this dirge. If the loose theme around Deep Calleth was about the spirituality found in appreciating art while set against the transience of life, this song could apply directly about our own most cherished art form (weighty stuff I know, but consider Satyr’s recent medical scares as its source material and that heaviness is appropriate). The phrase within the lyrics, “… pass the torch to your brethren in the dark…” is so relevant to everyone who loves metal, from the bands and labels to the writers at blogs and magazines to fans buying albums, going to shows, recommending stuff to other fans. There is no governing structure that supports metal music as a subculture or records its history for us, those tasks simply fall to us and its our responsibility to make sure that this music gets passed onto younger generations growing up today. I know this is a very metal blogger take on a song that is far more expansive in its lyrical reach, but its what I took from it. That’s also a testament to its power, as Satyr himself ascribed to it, “A song for the dark towers of the past and those who will rise in the future.”

 

 

 

 

2.   “Apex” – Unleash The Archers (from the album Apex):

 

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

 

 

No song was more liable to get me a speeding ticket than the title track to Unleash The Archers awesome Apex, an album that not only represents the very best of what power metal has to offer, but has certainly opened up the genre to those who would normally scoff at it. This cut is a perfect example why, eight minutes that feel like three of a Maiden-gallop led charger that builds to the year’s most epic, satisfying chorus. This band is economical in the best sense, riffs are purposeful, built for conducting the crackling energy that underlies Brittney Hayes impassioned vocal melodies. Even the moody intro is a delight, with faintly chiming acoustic strumming underneath a lazily gorgeous open chord sequence, a moment of respite from the dramatic build up that follows and the rocket launch that happens immediately after. There’s real craft here, songwriting with an understanding of the trad/power metal bedrock that makes this kind of music spectacular, coupled with the wisdom of how to avoid the cliches and tropes that so often make it an easy target. In a recent tweet, Adrien Begrand (of Decibel fame) observed that the tastemaker best metal of 2017 lists were sorely lacking in metal that was actually, you know, fun —- I agree, and if said lists were missing out on Unleash the Archers, you can go ahead and ignore them now.

 

 

 

 

3.   “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)” – Wintersun (from the album The Forest Seasons):

 

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

 

 

For all that I’ve written (controversially) about Wintersun that has aroused the ire of not only the band’s fans but Jari Mäenpää himself, I was eagerly anticipating The Forest Seasons, not to tear it down mind you, but because I genuinely think the guy is supremely talented. I loved the idea behind the concept, a metal re-imagining of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, it was inventive and fun and made you wonder why no one (Malmsteen perhaps?) hadn’t tried it before. I’m not sure how well it succeeded in the minds of Wintersun fans as an album, I’ve seen a spectrum of opinions ranging every which way but for me I found that the autumn and winter cuts were lacking (ironic given the band’s name). The spring and summer movements however were fresh reminders of just why there’s so much hubbub surrounding this band in the first place. For my part, Mäenpää has never written something as starkly beautiful as the epic folk metal with a power metal engine of “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”. There’s a spirituality heard in the dim orchestral keyboard arrangement that mournfully croons in the air above the noteworthy riff sequence going on in the verse sections. His clean vocal melody in the refrain is not only surprisingly hooky in a Vintersorg-ish way, but soulful even, the kind of thing old school folk metal was built on really. The moment that will send crowds of people headbanging in venues all over Europe is the coiled snake springing to strike in the full on riff assault that occurs at 7:19.

 

 

 

 

4.   “Unbearable Sorrow” – Sorcerer (from the album The Crowning of the Fire King):

 

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

 

 

Sorcerer is one of those bands who quietly slipped under a lot of radars this year, and their late October opus The Crowning of the Fire King will get unjustly ignored, but hopefully not by you once you hear “Unbearable Sorrow”. This was one of those bands I didn’t actually write a review on but we did cover on the MSRcast, which was my introduction to them and the moment when I realized that this was where ex-Therion guitarist Kristian Niemann had wandered off to after he had left that band. Sorcerer actually began back in the late 80s, released a few demos, and split up in 1995 before ever doing a full length. Finally in 2010 its founding members bassist Johnny Hagel and vocalist Anders Engberg reunited and grabbed some of their Swedish pals to round out the lineup. Engberg is a sublime talent, and for you Therion diehards out there, he might look familiar if you remember the male vocalist onstage from the Wacken 2001 footage off the Celebrators of Becoming DVD box set (he was also on the 2001 live album Live In Midgard). This Therion connection is of course magnified with Niemann’s role as the lead guitarist here, as his distinctive neo-classical, richly melodic style is painted all across this album to stunning results. He was my favorite of the many guitarists that have graced Therion’s lineup, just wonderfully inventive in his writing and possessing a fluidity in his playing that I’ve rarely heard mirrored by anyone else. On “Unbearable Sorrow”, his guitarwork is mystical, other-worldly, darkly beautiful and damn near spiritual in its expressions, and he’s almost topped by Engberg’s powerful, melancholic vocal performance.

 

 

 

 

5.   “The Same Asylum As Before” – Steven Wilson (from the album To The Bone):

 

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

 

 

While Steven Wilson’s newest album didn’t wow me as much as 2014’s absolute masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase., it did bear a handful of gems, the shiniest among them this slice of Lightbulb Sun era prog-rock. Wilson’s distinctive songwriting style makes it difficult not to look for comparisons to his previous work, despite this song being set amidst an album heavily influenced by 80s ‘intelligent pop’ icons Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Tears For Fears. For all the art-pop ambition of To The Bone, what I mostly got out of it was Wilson returning to the lighter moods and tones of that classic turn of the millennium Porcupine Tree era. I hear it in this song’s chorus, a dichotomy of bummed out lyrics sung by a resigned narrator against a splash of bright, warmly laid back acoustic guitar. The escalating guitar pattern that slices through this lazy summer day is crackling and electric, an unexpected piece of ear candy that has kept me coming back to this song even if I haven’t been tempted to revisit the entire album yet. Also worth commending here is Wilson’s vocal performance, because his delivery in the chorus is sublime, hitting the boyish tenor he’s been avoiding on the past few albums but has achieved so often earlier in his discography. Forlorn Porcupine Tree fans who’ve long fallen off the Wilson wagon should really be giving this track (and the album at that) a spin, because its the closest he’s come to his old band’s sound in almost a decade.

 

 

 

 

6.   “Black Flag” – Iced Earth (from the album Incorruptible):

 

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

 

 

Iced Earth rebounded with this year’s Incorruptible, after the subtle disappointment that was 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, and the album yielded a pair of absolute classics in “Black Flag” and “Raven Wing”. One could make an argument for either being the best on the album, but I know that the former was simply one of my most listened to songs of the year just based off iTunes play count stats alone. The band recently released an actual music video for this too, just a week or two ago, six months after the album saw the light of the day. If you’ve seen it in all its Master and Commander glory, you’ll get why it took them six months to get it out to the public —- and look, I’m hard on conceptual music vids by metal bands, frequently citing that the budget never covers the ambition. That truth applies this time as well, which is why I linked to the song itself above (though in fairness, the “Black Flag” video is far from the worst I’ve seen this year, one could even call it relatively decent). But I’m getting distracted, because my larger point is that this song’s evocative, scene setting lyrics need no video at all, particularly when Stu Block sings “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. How does that not put a music video of your own in your mind’s eye (or at least memories of playing Assassin’s Creed IV)?

 

 

 

 

7.   “A World Divided” – Pyramaze (from the album Contingent):

 

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

 

 

Two years ago, I referred to then new Pyramaze vocalist Terje Haroy as one of the most promising new vocal talents in metal, and he certainly lived up to that hype on this year’s Contingent. It wasn’t a perfect album, in fact it was severely lopsided in that its first five cuts were home runs while the latter half of the album seemed lost and directionless. Amidst those first five songs however was the absolute gem “A World Divided”, a deceptively heavy song that lulls you in with a delicate, calming piano melody over much of its first minute, perhaps fooling you into thinking a power ballad was in the works. The great thing about guitarist Jacob Hansen’s production (yes that Jacob Hansen, he joined up after working as their producer/engineer on their last album and is pulling double duty) is that he keeps the keyboards high in the mix above the groove based riffs, and they’re an integral part of the musical fabric here. I know its a small thing, but there’s something delightful about how keyboardist Jonah Weingarten delivers a slowed down shadowing melody underneath underneath Haroy’s soaring vocal melody during the chorus. It speaks to the intelligence of the songwriting and the care put into crafting the soundscape that’s both hard hitting yet also fragile, delicate even. Oh and kudos to the band for actually delivering a high concept music video that was artfully done, and the band even looked great in it (which almost never happens)!

 

 

 

 

8.   “Lvgvs” – Eluveitie (from the album Evocation II – Pantheon):

 

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

 

 

I loved this song and many, many others off Eluveitie’s first post Anna Murphy and company album, so much so that Evocation II – Pantheon is in the nominee pool for the upcoming albums of the year list. In a year where folk metal experienced something of a quiet artistic renaissance, Eluveitie released an album full of acoustic, European folk inspired music that was imbued with the very spiritual essence of what we loved about rootsy folk metal. It blew away its 2009 predecessor, but more importantly, it gave Eluveitie a bit of breathing room to stand apart from the more modern rock direction its former bandmates took with Cellar Darling. Their secret weapon in pulling this off turned out to be new vocalist Fabienne Erni, her voice light and breezy, providing a new tone in the band’s soundscape. On “Lvgvs”, her vocals are full of genuine warmth, almost reminiscent of Candice Night (of Blackmore’s Night fame), and her performance is surrounded by a stunning array of rustic instrumentation. This is technically not an original song, apparently being a traditional folk tune, but I’m not going to let that prevent me from putting it deservedly on this list —- Eluveitie make it their own here. This was on my playlist for the Texas Renaissance Festival, and it was the song I played when I woke up to the first really chilly winds of November sweeping through. Like the stick of frankincense I was burning that morning, “Lvgvs” was autumn’s musical incense.

 

 

 

 

9.   “Journey To Forever” – Ayreon (from the album The Source):

 

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

 

 

If you tune into the upcoming MSRcast’s yearly recap episodes (we usually run a two-parter), you’re likely to hear loads about Ayreon’s The Source, the latest album from a band that is among my co-host Cary’s favorites. This album was really my first headlong plunge into Arjen Lucassen’s career defining project and while I certainly didn’t hate it, I didn’t share his extreme love for it for various reasons I outlined in my original review. One thing he and I will agree upon however is that “Journey to Forever” is one of the year’s best songs, bar none. Its got a pair of my all-time favorite vocalists in Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch and Edguy/Avantasia’s Tobias Sammet (joined by Michael Eriksen of Circus Maximus) —- and as impressive as that cast is, it wouldn’t be nearly as special if Lucassen hadn’t penned an incredible song. The chorus is spectacularly joyous, and it opens the song in acapella mode, followed by the beautiful plucking of a mandolin playing a variation on the chorus melody. After the guitars have kicked in, a gorgeous violin decides to swoon alongside everyone else, and at some point a hammond organ gets in on the fun too. Its the best three minutes on the album, in fact, its rather short length being the only serious criticism I can levy at it. If you heard the track and were reminded of his delightful work in The Gentle Storm project he did with Anneke van Giersbergen, you weren’t alone. More of this stuff please Arjen.

 

 

 

 

10.   “Queen Of Hearts Reborn” – Xandria (from the album Theater of Dimensions):

 

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

 

 

One of the year’s grave disappointments was seeing the way Xandria split with vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen, a break-up that went public when she detailed the circumstances on a social media post. It didn’t paint the band in the best light, and to add to the condemnation were two ex-Xandria vocalists in Manuela Kraller and Lisa Middelhauve weighing in with similar testimony as to how the band treated its frontwomen. I got to see the band live with van Giersbergen a few years back while opening for the Sonata Arctica / Delain North American tour, and she was spectacular, easily one of the best live vocalists I had ever seen. I walked away from that show more impressed with her performance than anything else that night, and instantly decided to give Xandria another shot and began delving into their discography. Their 2017 release Theater of Dimensions is one of the best traditional symphonic metal albums in years, a throwback to a sound pioneered by Nightwish on classics like Wishmaster and Century Child. Its not quite revolutionary stuff then, but I enjoyed the hell out of it earlier this year, and “Queen of Hearts Reborn” was its supreme highlight, a powerful, towering showcase of dramatics and theatricality. I’ll admit, I soured on listening to the band after reading about the way they treated their vocalists, and I’m looking forward to what van Giersbergen will do with her original band Ex Libris. I wish I could’ve written instead about how Xandria’s future was bright, how this was their defining album —- and while artistically it might be, I pity whomever else they convince to work with them going forward.

 

 

A Brief History of The Metal Pigeon (aka Roots, Pigeon Roots)

I can’t remember if it was the summer of 1987 or 88, but I do know that it started in Sacramento. We had family there, my dad’s older sister, her husband, and their kids who numbered all of six daughters. They were much older than my brother and I, the both of us still in elementary school (I had just started), so much so that the youngest among them had already entered high school. That disparity made those family visits a bit surreal for me. I was unable to get a handle on anything they talked about, and I’ve never been good with names so I hardly could keep any of theirs straight except for a pair of them that doted on me. This sounds bad I know, but to this day I’m not even sure if I’ve ever really had proper conversations with all of them. That’s not entirely unusual though, I have a handful of first cousins I’ve still never met, and a few others I’ve only met once (both my parents had a lot of siblings). I can’t imagine the kind of family dynamic you’d have with that many daughters, and I never really got to know them well enough to understand, but I knew that just like any family, they had their black sheep too.

 

I knew this because on one early visit I went upstairs, entranced that they had a spiraled staircase and an actual bridge that connected the opposite sides of the second floor. It was like a playground, a bridge —- a freaking bridge in the middle of a suburban home! I had walked across it towards a bedroom with its door ajar, where I curiously poked my head in and unwittingly altered the future soundtrack to my life. On the walls were a myriad of posters, some of them vivid and colorful in those distinctly 80’s styles, but others had faces of dudes with wild hair, and what seemed like… girls makeup on. Among the panorama, three things stood out: there was a huge, huge poster of what I’d later recognize as the cover art for Megadeth’s Peace Sells… But Who’s Buying, an Iron Maiden poster with Eddie glaring menacingly at me (memory suggests it could be the Killers cover art), and a picture of Bon Jovi with collective hairstyles that stood out as particularly outrageous. It was all compelling, and I stared transfixed for a long time, particularly at the Megadeth poster. What the hell was I looking at? It was fascinating! An older cousin poked her head around the door, “There you are!”. I asked her what all the stuff on the walls was, and she quirked a sour expression, “Oh I don’t know, this is Cindy’s room…”, that immediate sense of disapproval registering in my mind.

 

It was the start of something. No I didn’t go out and beg my mom for the new Megadeth album, I didn’t even know what Megadeth was. But a seed had been planted, the first fires of curiosity stoked in the engine of my metal fandom. I remembered her response for sure, but more importantly, I was left with a faint impression of a world that was mysterious, dangerous, and far more fantastical than the humdrum reality that family visits were entirely composed of. Sometime after this, at yet another aunt’s house where they actually had nascent cable services and MTV, I saw the video for Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” and my interest in rock music took off.

 

California was the backdrop for all these moments, our family making an annual summer drive across I-10 West from Texas through New Mexico and Arizona, up to cities like Modesto, San Francisco, Fremont, and of course Sacramento. We’d spend weeks on these Ford Aerostar trips, and for whatever reason, out there I heard things I’d never hear back home in Houston: Guns N’ Roses in passing moments as the late 80s wound by, White Lion’s “Wait” playing from some guy’s car stereo as he idled in front of Vince’s Shellfish Co. packing warehouse that was directly across the tiny street from my grandmother’s even tinier San Bruno house. There’s more than a handful of songs I associate with that street, as well as the sight of the actual “South San Francisco The Industrial City” sign on the side of Sign Hill Park that you could see in the distance if you stood on something tall to see over the buildings. One windy, chilly sunset evening I heard the sonorous notes of what I’d later recall as Journey’s “Lights” drifting over some nearby fence while standing on the minuscule patch of grass that served as the backyard of that house. Names of relatives, phone numbers, addresses, these were things I could hardly remember (still can’t) —- but singing voices were seared upon my memories, and my recollection of the songs that carried them remained as vivid as the moment I first heard them.

 

It was more than just rock music that I soaked up on these trips, it was an entire musical pop culture education that spanned across genres. An uncle lived with my grandmother, and due to him the place had cable TV as well. Straining to hear over the house shaking roar of jets frequently taking off a few hundred yards away at San Francisco International, my brother and I saw videos from Bobby Brown, Madonna, Paula Abdul, and Phil Collins. I quietly loved all of it, especially Phil Collins, of whom we must’ve bought a cassette of because I distinctly remember listening to him in the Aerostar as it bounded across cracked roads, steep hills, and narrow avenues (we’d frequently find ourselves bounced out of our seats, no 80’s minivan has shocks good enough to make Bay Area driving comfortable). We listened to the oldies too, the only music my parents would tune the car radio to, and I got an education in Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, even Supertramp.  My parents were always unwittingly influential that way —- during the first four years of my life when we lived in Modesto, my mom would play ABBA in her Datsun 510, a detail she doesn’t remember (to be fair, she hardly ever remembers the names of musical artists) and along with Kenny Rogers and Crystal Gayle they compose most of my first musical memories.

 

I would return home from these long family trips with a head spinning full of melodies not easily forgotten. And I suspect now that the overwhelming pop influences that I picked up here would later direct me to better appreciate metal subgenres such as power metal, when most other Texan metal heads were only concerned with heaviness. But of course you’re a kid, and your attention span even in those pre-internet days is still in constant flux, so I’d be diverted by the rest of the endless summer’s allure: riding bicycles in the tracks we carved in the thicket of woods behind the neighborhood, ducking out the hottest hours of the day at various friends’ houses, and generally just exhausting ourselves in a variety of ways. The idea of owning music didn’t become a reality until much later in elementary school, when I started listening to a local Houston “mainstream rock” station called Rock 101 KLOL. They’d play your hard rock standards, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, Montrose, Thin Lizzy, Scorpions, ZZ Top (whose drummer Frank Beard had a palatial estate just outside our neighborhood) —- but at night they’d let heavier stuff slip through, some Metallica, Queensryche, Pantera, and offbeat stuff like Faith No More. I’d frequently record hours of these broadcasts on my cassette deck boom box, failing to remember to stop during commercial breaks. It soon dawned on me that I should get proper copies of the stuff I heard on the radio and loved. I began exploring the record store at the mall, scoring treasures in both CD and cassette from the used bins.

 

Fast forward to the start of sixth grade, and I have my first run in with real metal heads, or headbangers, as they were legitimately called in those days. Chad and Eric, two metal t-shirt wearing guys in the percussion section of the symphonic band I was placed into after tryouts. I was assigned to the suspended cymbal, Chad and Eric on the snare drums, and a few other kids whose names escape me covered the timpani, the bass drum, and the xylophone. I’ve always been a friendly sort, so after band practice that first day I struck up conversation, albeit nervously considering they were a grade ahead of me. Chad was wearing a Metallica shirt, the …And Justice For All design. “Hey Metallica…,” I squeaked to Chad, “…I know them, I love ‘The Unforgiven’…”. He sneered and audibly scoffed, “Oh yeah? What, is the Black Album the only thing you’ve listened to?” I didn’t expect the hostility, I think I stammered out something unintelligible and Eric, being the nicer of the two, informed me succinctly, “They’ve been around a long time, they have older, better albums.” Chad was brusque, “Come talk to me when you’ve listened to Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning, and know more metal bands than just Metallica. Don’t be a poseur.” That word was a big deal in the mid-90s, the worst sort of insult. I was struck by an invisible hand, and chastened, I sauntered away, only later feeling enough resolve to grab my Metallica-loving friend Daniel in the hall to pester him into making me copies of whatever else he had.

 

He didn’t have much really, a Primus album (Sailing the Seas…), and Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven, but it was a start. Within a rapidly short period of time however, I bought up a plethora of new music from frequent trips to a used cd store and occasionally the Sam Goody’s in the mall. Megadeth became an obsession, I loved them even more than Metallica, although in those pre-Load days I’d have never said so out loud. It came in a flood and it came nearly at once: Iron Maiden, Metal Church, Suicidal Tendencies, Saigon Kick (The Lizard!), Queensryche, Ozzy, and Dio. Also older hard rock stuff too: Tesla, Van Halen, Dokken, Motorhead, and yes, still a love for Bon Jovi, particularly the neglected 90s albums. It was a combination of the enjoyment of the music itself, the rebellious image it presented, and also the uniqueness it brought to my own self-identity. Hard rock and metal were not en vogue in the mid-nineties in Houston, particularly not at the middle school I went to, where rap and to a lesser extent modern R&B music was predominant cultural force. We were outsiders there, a few scraggly kids with interests that everyone else deemed either weird or considered outdated, a viewpoint that really seemed to take hold during that time, that a pursuit of trends and being in fashion was the way to be “cool”. I think it was probably different a decade or so later, when the concept of retro permeated the sensibilities of pop culture and fashion.

 

Happening concurrently with that explosion in music buying was the dawning of a deep interest in rock and metal magazines, which I bought as often as I could spare the few bucks not reserved for actual music. Kerrang!, Metal Edge, the last years of RIP, Hit Parader, Circus, and a host of others were regular reading material, mainly at the magazine racks of the nearest bookstore. I stuck to magazines that had bands and names that I recognized, mostly mainstream rock/metal type stuff —- I’d curiously flip through Metal Maniacs and wonder why they weren’t writing about Metallica. Yeah, I was naive, more on that soon. The reading material became a compulsion, and in addition to the magazines I tore through any books on rock and metal that I could find, biographies being a particular favorite. I became a sponge for facts, memorizing band member’s names, line-up changes, chart positions, and entire backstories of favorite bands, Metallica and Iron Maiden in particular. In the summer of ’96, Metallica released Load, and I listened to it obsessively in a crappy Sony Discman, and my fandom of the band was at such a fever pitch that I loudly defended it to detractors among my circle of friends. I’d dodge their clumsy insult based diatribes by talking about lyrical depth, a specific moment in a favorite song, be it a riff or a melody, and would dare them to find a deeper, more meaningful Metallica song than “Bleeding Me”. I convinced no one of course, but I found in myself a conviction in my own beliefs, and confidence in my ability to argue intelligently about music.

 

In retrospect, it was likely around this time that I found my love of music criticism, both through envying the writers of the magazines I was reading, as well as forming my own arguments to defend albums that were under fire from fellow metal fans, both in person and online in early forum boards such as The Official Megadeth Forums and the old EncycMet forums (the latter used to be a thriving community, now its a junkyard for bots and spam). I learned a lot from older, salty veteran metalheads at these places, got pointed in the direction of bands I should check out, and would be generously linked to private FTPs to grab an MP3 of a band someone would think I’d enjoy. I got introduced to black metal this way, through someone passing me Dimmu Borgir’s “Mourning Palace”… it took hours to download that one song but it was totally worth it. Around this time, my old buddy Daniel had leaped headfirst into heavier stuff —- we had already listened to Cannibal Corpse and Gwar at his house, more of out shocking his conservative parents than any real enjoyment of the music, but soon he got his hands on a dubbed copy of albums by Death and Carcass. We sat and listened to Individual Thought Patterns and Heartwork, and of course Sepultura’s classic Chaos AD. Almost at once, I dove into the death metal pool, and still remember us bicycling from his house to the nearby 7-11, ostensibly to buy Jolt Cola (it was the only place that sold it), and instead spending my few dollars on that once perplexing magazine called Metal Maniacs. It was the dawn of a new era in my metal fandom.

 

I was in high school by this point and my musical tastes were flowering in a myriad of directions. An old elementary school friend named Greg and I reconnected over a shared love of the Smashing Pumpkins; a girl I briefly dated in the 9th grade introduced me to U2 which soon became a hidden obsession of mine; I was introduced to the elegant British pop of Saint Etienne via a computer-geek friend and his anglophile sister; to The Prodigy, Underworld, Aphex Twin, and other electronic “techno” music through a budding hacker buddy (hey, hacker culture was a big deal back then (Free Kevin!)); and I met Matt Roy, a good friend to this day and fellow metalhead who introduced me to Loreena McKennitt, the world traveling Celtic songstress whose Book of Secrets album was a quiet, nighttime revelation. In the halls of that high school, I ran into a familiar face one morning by our usual pre-class hangout spot, it was Chad from my old middle school percussion section. We both knew a big metalhead named Paul Saleeba (there were so few metal fans at my high school, we all knew each other in some way), and Saleeba and I were talking about whether we preferred death or black metal and whether the newly released Lords of Chaos book was true or not. Chad listened to me talk in detail about bands from Norway, and while he didn’t say anything directly, I noticed he no longer regarded me with the sneering contempt he once had. No one could call me a poseur by then.

 

The pre-social media, pre-Blabbermouth.net internet at that time was a patchwork of some individual band websites with message boards, some central online metal hubs that fans of all stripes congregated at, and also the burgeoning dawn of metal only internet radio. Starting around 98-99, I was a daily visitor at KNAC.com, HardRadio.com, and a host of other newly developing metal internet radio sites. Someone on a message board tipped me off to WRUW in Cleveland, who had a few weekly metal shows on their college radio roster, one of which changed my metal fandom by itself —- Dr. Metal’s The Metal Meltdown. I have a distinct memory of sitting one Friday afternoon and listening to all these bands I didn’t recognize but loving largely everything I heard. It was a revelation, and my introduction to power metal. The Doc threw out names I recognized, Helloween and Savatage, (both had new albums coming out around then), but those were bands I had previously only thought of as 80s metal bands, the ones that couldn’t survive unlike your Metallicas and Queensryches (how young and dumb I was!). Soon the Doc was throwing unfamiliar names my way, playing their newest cuts in rapid fire: Gamma Ray, a new band from Sweden called Hammerfall, Tad Morose, Royal Hunt, Pink Cream 69, Iron Savior, Edguy, Angra, and so many others. I recognized one band in particular though, Blind Guardian, whose “Lord of the Rings” I had heard weeks prior on Hardradio.com only to be left transfixed and frustrated for wanting more. He played songs off their newest album, Nightfall In Middle Earth, and I had a transcendent experience. My perspective on metal and music were forever changed.

 

My dive into power metal coincided not only with the flourishing of the Golden Age of Power Metal™ in the late 90s through early 2000s, but with the advent of getting a job(s) and my own car. I would immediately begin seeking out local record stores around town (its dizzying now to think of how many of them existed, albeit for only a short while longer), spending my paychecks there as well as ordering multiple titles from overseas distros at one time to save on shipping. I ordered albums from Germany, Italy, France, Japan (the most expensive single disc I ever bought was Sonata Arctica’s Orientation EP for 40 bucks from a Tokyo distro, totally worth it). The stateside merger of Nuclear Blast’s catalog with Century Media’s distro was a game changer, making previously unavailable albums accessible to stateside fans without exorbitant shipping costs and even the possibility of retail placement. I worked in the music section of a Borders Books and Music in those days and would make use of the company’s various distribution channels to get tons of stuff for myself, and even got hooked up with regional major label reps for bigger things (promos ahead of release dates, concert tickets… well, Def Leppard, Poison, and bands of that ilk, but it was something). The magazine addiction continued too, with frequent visits to a now defunct (and mourned) magazine shop called Superstand where I could grab import issues I couldn’t find anywhere else. It was the transformation of a budding obsession to a way of life.

 

Fast forward to the late summer of 2000, and my life was… to put it mildly, hectic. I was starting a new job, living in a new apartment, going to university for the first time, and was constantly driving back and forth across the traffic clogged expanse of Houston’s spaghetti bowl of freeways. I was also going through a rough time, feeling down at the departure of some friends, alienated from people around me and feeling utterly lost and adrift when on campus. I had gotten into the Gothenburg melodic-death metal scene earlier that summer, and In Flames’ new album Clayman was in its own lyrically clunky way expressing everything I was feeling during that period of time and I was listening to it almost non-stop (pausing only to listen to their other classics, The Jester Race, Whoracle, and Colony). I remember it was a chilly fall, and it turned into a frigid winter, the coldest I can remember in Houston terms. I associate those albums with getting in my car with the heater going, purposefully driving fast enough to blank out my mind to everything else while banging the steering wheel in time with the drums. One day while looking online in the computer lab at school, I found out In Flames was coming, Saturday, December 16th, —- here, to Houston! I resolved to go no matter what. I had been to concerts before, but this would be my first club show, complete with parking in a sketchy neighborhood!

 

It was a Saturday, with a gusty wind-chill putting the temperature around 40 something degrees, and in that late afternoon I walked towards the legendary Houston club Fitzgerald’s. I remember being severely unprepared for the cold, and I clutched my jacket around me, fingers growing ever more numb. Fitz’ basically looks like a very large house (it was previously a community center for the local Polish-American community shortly after WWII), and had been converted into a dance hall in the 70s, with the main stage upstairs —- but vestiges of the old home remained: an upstairs front facing balcony, and below it, an elevated wooden front porch. As I neared, I saw a familiar figure sitting on the steps, and when I was mere yards away from him it became clear that it was In Flames vocalist Anders Friden sitting on the steps, leaning against the wooden railings. I remember saying hello, and asked him how he was doing, how the tour was going. I was nervous, it was my first face to face with a musician that I was a fan of, let alone one whose albums I was completely immersed in at the time. I was stunned that I could just talk to him out there, no security pushing me away, no “backstage pass” needed, just two guys dressed in black sitting on a wooden porch.

 

He looked at me and grinned sheepishly, and said in a noticeable Swedish accent, “Oh man, you know, we partied really hard here last night …”. Here?! I thought. In Flames were here in Houston last night?! I asked him where they went to party but he shook his head and said, “… Don’t know, can’t remember… you guys have bullet proof windows at the Taco Bell drive-thru down here, that freaks us out man…”. I laughed, completely taken off guard. We chatted a few more minutes, me trying to reassure him that Houston wasn’t all that dangerous everywhere, though he seemed unconvinced. The bums loitering outside the convenience store across the street did little to reinforce my sentiments. I remember him commenting on how early I had arrived (it was only 4:30pm), and I told him this was my first club show and first time going to a show by myself. He seemed surprised at that, remarked that he hoped they delivered a good one. Right around then someone bellowed for him from inside and he got up and said “See you man” and went in. I sat there in stunned silence while a guy with an In Flames shirt was walking up to the venue to join me in the long, cold wait. A few minutes later we heard some familiar riffs as the band sound checked —- the guy outside freaked out, ecstatic that he was hearing an In Flames soundcheck. I didn’t tell him that he had just missed Anders sitting outside, it would’ve been a jerk move… instead I agreed with him about the awesomeness.

 

That show was epic. Like front and center pressed up against the stage, got handshakes with Jesper and Anders (who did recognize me from earlier), heard Jester Race songs played live, and got Jeff Loomis’ guitar pick kinda epic (oh yeah Nevermore and Shadows Fall opened). It meant so much to me to see In Flames that night in particular, it was cathartic in a way. I remember driving back in the wee hours that night, high on the experience, realizing that I needed more of that type of hit. What followed was an onslaught of going to shows, everything from touring bands to local death metal gigs in cramped record stores, and for awhile I kept count of how many I had notched. That count is lost to memory and time, and I couldn’t even begin to estimate how many shows I’ve been to by now. If I go too many months without seeing a show, I feel it in my gut, the start of a yearning that won’t go away until I feel the rumble of amplified guitars and kick drums in my chest again. People say you’re supposed to grow out of this stuff, being excited about music and seeing concerts. You’re not supposed to want to start a metal blog a decade after that first club show, your adult mind having settled down to adult interests like golf, dinner parties, and khaki pants. I guess in that sense, I’ve never really grown up, or at least grown up the way most people consider right. If you’re reading this (this far especially), you likely can relate a bit to that.

 

I started The Metal Pigeon in 2011 because social media quietly killed most of the forum communities that I was a part of, everyone (bands included) making the move over from standalone websites and official forums to Facebook. Even if no one read it, it would be my soapbox to continue doing what I had been doing informally since the late 90s, talking and writing about metal for the sheer love of it. Amazingly, more people than I ever imagined have visited this site and read what I’ve written, and some of you have surprisingly come back over and over. That alone stuns me. I also co-host the MSRcast, plunging into a form of media that was all but alien to me a few years ago, and have learned that my smarmy voice going on incessantly about metal has been heard in far off places such as Australia and Brazil, where an English teacher used the show to help his students learn conversational English(!). People have asked me in the past, “Why do you listen to metal?” My answers were always generic and obvious. But I suspect now that I never really had a choice in the matter. I was in the right house during the right time, seeing the right posters on a relative’s bedroom wall. I was in the right spots to hear the right songs around my grandmother’s house in San Bruno, to remember them and store them away in my mind. I had a lifetime of possibilities to lose interest, to turn towards something else, but apparently, every time one came near, the music guided me onward. It was never a destination, it has always been a path.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 // Part Two: The Albums

Here we are, halfway into January and I’m just now delivering the final words on 2016, but that’s fitting for a year that was pockmarked by delays in updating the blog. I scaled back my reviewer work load last year because 2015’s sheer insane quantity of releases had me nearing burnout stages. It was a beneficial move as a music fan, and a handicap as a blogger, but the hope is that I balanced things out enough to keep an even keel on the writing front going forward. So though the pool of releases I listened to was far less (and less is relative, I’m talking about a scaling down from 120-ish in 2015 to 60-70 in 2016), I felt like I was able to spend longer amounts of time with the ones that captured my attention in one way or another. This list represents the ten best of that pool, selected for not only just how much I listened to them or for their excellence, but also how they affected me personally. As always, I keep these lists to a simple ten instead of twenty-five or fifty to force myself to make difficult cuts and really think about what I loved the most, not just what I happened to listen to. Thanks for reading throughout the year and being patient with me, I hope you’re back for all of 2017!

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Albums of 2016:

 

1.   Avantasia – Ghostlights:

Like Lebron James with the Cavs, and the entirety of the Chicago Cubs, Avantasia/Edguy founder Tobias Sammet found himself in 2016 rallying from a deficit. His was an artistic one, that being the 2013 Avantasia release The Mystery of Time, where for the second time in half a decade he was floundering on the songwriting front (Edguy’s 2008 album Tinnitus Sanctus being the first such misstep). That album lacked in several aspects, namely an uninspiring roster of guest vocalists either contributing to or exposing songwriting that seemed forced, and at its worst, half-baked. At the time I wondered whether or not he was spreading himself thin over his two bands, both massive enough that each required lengthy touring commitments that could possibly detract from quality rest and time at home to focus on songwriting at his usual caliber of excellence. I also wondered at just how similar the two projects were beginning to sound, with both The Mystery of Time and Edguy’s The Age of the Joker (2011) sharing similarities for their heavy reliance on orchestral arrangements. There was also the confusion of lyrical subject matter, with Edguy albums receiving equal numbers of Scorpions-esque songs with silly and humorous subject matter in addition to the more typical, serious work. He’d address that problem by compartmentalizing: He launched Edguy into a more leaner, hard rock path with 2014’s Space Police, with a largely tongue-in-cheek, loose, comic approach to the lyrics. Left unanswered was whether he’d further differentiate the two bands by leaning hard in the other direction with a future Avantasia album.

Lean hard he did, and it paid off better than anyone could’ve predicted, because Ghostlights is the greatest Avantasia album of them all (yes, including The Metal Opera Pt I/II). Sammett rolled the dice a bit here as well, picking guest vocalists that quite honestly had me shaking my head no when I first learned of them —- Geoff Tate, Dee Snider, Robert Mason (Warrant/Lynch Mob)… I just didn’t see it working. I had the same feeling when I first saw the guest vocalist listing for The Mystery of Time, a lack of excitement and anticipation that felt empty. This time however, Sammett’s songwriting was renewed, full of confidence and purpose, and in his masterful way he dug deep to deliver songs that brought out the absolute best in each of them. Geoff Tate sounds like his old self again on “Seduction of Decay”, an addictive, Queensryche-ean thriller built on a supremely epic chorus where his vocals carry the load admirably. On “The Haunting”, Snider embodies his character with real dramatic verve and melodic range, while Jorn Lande’s eternal voice brings darkening clouds and swirling winds on “Let the Storm Descend Upon You”. Largely absent are the hard rock tendencies that so confused previous Avantasia albums with Edguy ones, replaced with a darker toned orchestral arrangement throughout that further ingrains this album with its own unique identity.

Lande has one of the album’s three star turn moments on “Lucifer”, as magnificent a piece as Sammett has ever dreamed up, built on Broadway piano balladry that stutter steps into a rocketing, spiraling out-of-control blast of heavy metal theater. The other belongs to another unusual vocalist choice, Sinbreed’s Herbie Langhans, who delivers the album’s most accessible pop-gem in “Draconian Love”, singing in a lower register than we’re used to hearing him in, and it works perfectly in contrast to Sammett’s straight-ahead dual lead vocal as they deliver an absolute ear-worm of a chorus. Of course I’ve already gushed about Sammett’s duet with Bob Catley on “Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” (alongside Ghostlights it marks the first time the same artist has topped both my songs and albums lists), but its worth reiterating here just how gorgeous and aching this song is. I should also commend Sharon Den Adel’s work on “Isle of Evermore” which might get unfairly compared to her earlier Avantasia contribution  (“Farewell” from The Metal Opera), but her vocal here is delicate and shattering, perfect for a ballad that is more about lamentation than triumph. Ah, there’s so much I could point out, but then this would be an album review (which I’ve already written) —- to sum it up, this was my most listened to album all year, and my most loved. Gritty comeback Tobias, one for the ages.

 

 

2.   Alcest – Kodama:

People have written a lot over the years about the beauty of Alcest’s music, and how its sonic deconstruction of black metal has liberated the genre forward into exciting new directions. Maybe too much was written, so that their distinctly French take on black metal was spread so far and wide to such an extent that copycats sprung up in every corner of the world. In the past few years, they’ve almost become an after thought in elitist metal circles whereas lesser bands who’ve been directly influenced by these pioneering Frenchmen have soaked up the limelight for themselves. There was a time when I myself tried to brush off Alcest, albeit in a willfully ignorant manner —- that is until I heard their 2012 masterpiece Les Voyages de l’Âme, and was unable to ignore them any further. It was a hypnotic album, full of music that demanded adjectives that metal writing doesn’t usually inspire… beautiful, elegant, breathy, meditative, dreamy… descriptors that could easily apply to the new Enya album (which was fantastic by the way). Fascinatingly enough, when Alcest attempted to distance themselves from metal entirely on 2014’s Shelter, they made the most listless, flat, and boring album of their career. They’ve since returned to embrace their black metal influences on Kodama, and it signals to us that Neige perhaps understands that he paints more skillfully when he has all the colors available to him, not just the bright and cheerful ones.

I’m going to have to police myself in not getting too flowery with my descriptions here, because its such an easy temptation with Alcest because that’s the headspace their music puts you in. The theme that encompasses this album is far more interesting to comment on anyway —- “Kodama” itself is a reference to creatures found in Princess Mononoke, a film whose central conflict between the natural and human worlds also tied into Neige’s growing fascination with Japan. Specifically he was intrigued by how such a technologically immersed society still holds onto and embraces nature, tradition, and spirituality. As a result Kodama shimmers with cultural influences, down to the flavor of the melodies themselves, imbued with Japanese folk patterns that work as musical leitmotifs throughout the album. I wrote in greater detail about this in my original review, so here I’ll just use one moment as an example of why I love this album so much. At the end of “Eclosion”, around the mid six minute mark, the song spirals into a closing instrumental sequence, but instead of opting for a grandiose finish Alcest isn’t afraid to employ a minimalist approach —- allowing the song to hush to an end as lonely notes flutter upwards. It took a few listens before I caught the realization that it was merely the same melody that had been played throughout the entire song simply stripped of distortion and aggression. Deconstruction as an art form, not just an art term.

 

 

3.  Trees of Eternity – Hour of the Nightingale:

There’s a sentiment in the minds of many as we slog on through December, that being done with 2016 would be a welcome relief. From poisoned politics to natural disasters to the passing of beloved celebrities, icons, and artists, it was a rough twelve months indeed. For us in the metal world, there’s likely no one that endured as much raw grief and pain as Swallow the Sun’s founding guitarist Juha Raivio. He had to endure the tragedy of the passing of his longtime partner, Aleah Liane Stanbridge, who sadly lost her battle with cancer in April. She’s not a name that’s well known even among the metal world at large, but anyone who paid attention to the last Amorphis album Under The Red Cloud or Swallow the Sun’s triple disc Songs From the North would’ve heard her beautiful voice on some of their songs. She was also an experienced professional photographer, shooting a various range of projects —- the most notable and recent being the covers of the aforementioned Swallow the Sun album. Trees of Eternity was a project she and Raivio dreamed up many years ago actually, releasing a demo in 2013 and actually recording their one and only full length album in 2014. There’s scant details to go on except what Raivio has chosen to state himself on his social media, but at one point the album was rejected by a prominent metal label (who knows why), and it was shelved indefinitely. Credit to Raivio for pulling together the emotional fortitude needed to finally release what would be called Hour of the Nightingale (and credit Svart Records for coming to the rescue) in November of 2016. Its simultaneously a tribute to Aleah’s memory, and a reminder of what we’ve all lost as a result.

Trees of Eternity aren’t that far removed from the mellower, more quietly introspective side of Swallow the Sun, albeit with Aleah’s shimmering, ethereal vocals cascading throughout. This is an album built on calming tempos, rises and swells, slow building crescendos, and an almost dreamy sonic palette. That’s not to say it can’t get heavy —- Raivio’s guitars at times hit with force and a satisfying crunch (see the single “Broken Mirror” for this), but generally a cut such as the lullabye-esque “Sinking Ships” is far more representative. When things do veer into heavier directions, its that distinct Swallow the Sun mold of doom metal washing over everything, and its Aleah’s vocals that contrast with its tone so perfectly, yet still complementing its mood and spirit. I was taken aback by how much I immediately fell under the spell of Nightingale, first listened to on a nighttime drive to the MSRcast studios to record an episode of the podcast. I immediately blubbered to my co-host Cary about how this might be something to talk about when it came time to put our year end lists together. I briefly wondered if it was the circumstances surrounding the album’s backstory that were influencing my opinion —- but the truth is that this has been on heavy rotation since then, usually played at night when its power is far more manifest. This is a bittersweet experience, a perfect melodic doom metal album that was released with heavy hearts, and one that leaves a lasting shadow over ours as we listen.

 

 

4.   Hatebreed – The Concrete Confessional:

It seems that every year that I’ve been doing this blog, and probably in the years preceding that, I’ve gotten into a band that I’d ignored or dismissed altogether before. In 2016, that band was surprisingly Hatebreed, a road I was led on when my MSRcast co-host Cary recommended that I check out vocalist Jamey Jasta’s podcast The Jasta Show. I was instantly hooked, and soon enough curious to give old Hatebreed another listen as they were one of those bands that I had long ago pegged as that other heavy music (hardcore/punk/whatever) that wasn’t meant for the likes of me. I listened to their Perseverance album on Spotify and was completely surprised that I was enjoying it, and that soon extended to their other albums too. It was music that was getting me back in tune with the idea of just enjoying heaviness as a tangible quality —- nothing complicated going on, just very heavy riffing and screaming vocals that was simple but extremely catchy (Jasta even refers to his music as “neanderthal metal”), with hooks arranged for maximum impact on your adrenal glands. It was like a palette cleanser in a way during a year filled with wildly diverse metal releases. By April, I was actually anticipating the release of a new Hatebreed album so much that I bought the digital download on release day.

What’s astounding about The Concrete Confessional is how it might actually be my favorite Hatebreed album of them all, and though I’m too new to the party to suggest it might be their best… I very well think it is. More than any other album, this was my soundtrack to 2016 —- a pissed off, vicious, scathing, and intelligent lyrical attack upon government, society, and modern culture set to ferocious thrash metal guitars . That attribute is the most surprising facet of the album, that it actually comes across as more post-1990 Slayer than Converge or old Rise Against. Take “A.D.” (a best songs listee!), where guitarists Frank Novinec and Wayne Lozinak unleash riffs at breakneck speed, even completing the aforementioned Slayer comparison with an evil Jeff Hanneman sounding bridge at the 1:33 mark. Or going the other direction, listen to the outpouring of melodicism present in “Something’s Off”, with guitars that owe more to Iron Maiden-esque sensibilities as the provide the musical refrain throughout. More than just the music though, it was Jasta’s always inspired way with words in conveying the rage that we all tend to feel and sometimes can’t properly express. I listened to this album constantly, it was a refuge and a comfort, the soundtrack to stressful days and restless nights.

 

 

5.   Haken – Affinity:

This was a surprise and a reprimand at once, a wooden spoon smacking of thy hand that I hadn’t listened to Haken sooner, even though they were already recommended to me by a few people (and they were right, the previous album The Mountain was excellent). As with Alcest above, Haken put a lot of thought into their albums, and Affinity is no exception, being a thematic album about man and machine and the idea of artificial intelligence. And just like Alcest, they filter this concept into the fabric of the music itself to better depict the theme —- in the case of Affinity by infusing their prog-rock with 80s electronic music influences that remind us of Rush, and early 80s Toto and Van Halen. What I love about prog-bands such as Haken is the admirable attention to detail in ambitious projects like these, from the Atari/Nintendo styled electronic bridge in the song “1985”, to the album artwork that references classic tech/computing advertising of the 80s (which cleverly employs the birds that graced the cover of The Mountain). Together all these aesthetic details accumulate into a larger, cohesive experience, one that allows the actual songs to have gravitas and intellectual weight behind them.

Speaking of, the songs here are magnificent, from sprawling epics like “The Architect” to pop gems such as “Earthrise” (a best songs listee!). The former features a guest spot by Einar Solberg of Leprous (who also had an awesome drop in moment on the recent Ihsahn album) and runs the gamut from fierce metal passages to futuristic sounding prog moments that remind of Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet. I’ve gushed about “Earthrise” enough already, but it really is an incredible song, with the kind of chorus that present day Anathema would be proud of. My other major favorite is “1985”, the keystone song of the album (being written first, it inspired the direction the band took for the project) that at times sounds more like Rush than Rush themselves, and has an amazing chorus that switches from a soaring, major key vocal melody to the fattest, heaviest bottom end bass and guitar riff that you never expected. I could point out other moments just like that, but to cover it in a nutshell, these songs just keep you guessing and surprised at every bend. That wild diversity is a trademark of Haken’s, a glimpse of their vivid creativity and imagination, and their willingness to bend both the rules of prog-rock and their listeners’ expectations.

 

 

6.   Myrath – Legacy:

One of the most positive leaning metal albums in a year full of anger and despondency, Myrath’s Legacy was a much needed refuge. The prog-power yang to Orphaned Land’s death metal yin in the small but growing niche of “oriental metal” from the Middle-East, Myrath made a huge artistic leap forward with Legacy. Five years separated it from its 2011 predecessor Tales Of The Sands, and the band honed their songwriting in that span of time —- toning down the prog-metal flourishes (which to be fair they never really overdid), leaning far more on pop accessibility, and strongly emphasizing their cultural folk musical elements. The latter comes in the form of Arabic melodies delivered via an actual string section, and they actually carry the musical load of a majority of these songs, the guitars often taking a backseat. This doesn’t make things less metallic, but guitarist Malek Ben Arbia simplifies his approach, approaching his guitar work in a manner that’s more Kamelot than Symphony X. On the best songs listee, “Believer”, this approach pays dividends in delivering the most cinematic and earwormy cut of their career, the strings and Arabic-phrased choral vocals working in tandem to deliver a knockout hook.

Speaking of vocals, Zaher Zorgati is one of the more expressive and unique singers in heavy music, rhythmic in his lyrical phrasing, able to bend the English language in appealing ways by virtue of his accent and sheer ingenuity —- and he drops moments that ache with authenticity when he sings in Arabic as in “Nobody’s Lives”. We’ve all heard those metal albums where bands attempt to add in some pan-Arabic sounds, be it through awful keyboard orchestrations that pull from schlocky Hollywood movie soundtracks or by simply playing a few bent notes or phrases. Myrath transcend all that with songwriting that is steeped in the cultural music they grew up with. They’re a Tunisian band (recently relocated to France) and Legacy is streaked with imprints of the Jasmine Revolution in its optimism and beautifully expressed yearning for freedom. Its was a surprise to read the lyrics and realize that most of these tracks were indeed love songs, the unnamed narrator expressing either his devotion or lamenting his loss thereof. Whether the subject of these love songs was left up to the listener only Myrath themselves know, but they could easily be about a woman, a country, or an ideal. In that sense, I think they succeed in making something really fresh, much like Orphaned Land’s All Is One, where Orientalist imagery is manipulated to discuss issues that matter to people —- and not just to those in the Middle-East, but all people.

 

 

7.   Thrawsunblat – Metachthonia:

Born from the smoky woods and rocky shores of New Brunswick, Thrawsunblat unleashed the finest folk-metal album of the year, a strange thing to say about a band from Canada but there you go. They’re likely to have sailed under more than a few radars, and I hope Metachthonia‘s presence on this list changes that in a small way, because they really are worth your time. Thrawsunblat can be considered a spiritual sibling to Woods of Ypres and its departed founder David Gold, who co-founded this band as a side project with ex-Woods guitarist Joel Violette. I’ll refer you to my original review if you’re interested in details about this project’s origin, but suffice to say Violette has turned the band into his main priority in the years since. He delivered a promising debut album in 2013 that merged a fresh, maritime folk influence with rootsy black metal, yielding some awesome songs in the process (“Maritime Shores” and “We, The Torchbearers” to name a pair). This sound is the blazing of a new trail in both North American black metal and folk metal, a merging of sounds from both sides of the Atlantic much in the same way that Panopticon has done so from Appalachia. His second album, Metachthonia, is a further refinement of this relatively new sound, one that pushes the black metal extremity forward and more seamlessly interweaves the still rich folk influences.

I believe I originally referred to Moonsorrow and Borknagar as touchstones in Metachthonia‘s particular black metal strain, and I still stand by those comparisons. They both have that roots in the earth warmth to their sounds (moreso in Borknagar’s later albums Urd and Winter Thrice), despite their capacity for raw fury, and I hear that coming through in Violette’s songs. He has an uncanny way to marry minor key built melodies with his often atonal vocal lines to astonishingly tuneful and melodic results, such as in “She Who Names The Stars” where the album’s most blistering passages lurk. You get another taste of that in “Dead of Winter”, where Violette wields dissonance like a malleable piece of clay and fashion out the most hooky tremolo riffs this side of Ulver. As a vocalist, he instantly reminds me of Gold himself in both clean and grim vocals, and I wonder if he’s not channeling that (either consciously or somehow subconsciously). I can’t deny that I started investigating Thrawsunblat because of the Gold connection directly, but with Metachthonia Violette has found a voice all his own.

 

 

8.   Insomnium – Winter’s Gate:

As I mentioned in my intro, I haven’t read many best of lists as of yet, a lesson I learned a few years back when first publishing my own lists to not allow others to influence me. Most of those come out in early to mid December we all knew my list wasn’t getting up that soon! But I will be going around scoping out what everyone else picked out on various metal and non-metal publications and blogs, and I’ll be surprised and a little suspicious of any list that doesn’t feature Insomnium’s bold and daring Winter’s Gate. I describe it as such because its such an abrupt departure from their self-made Finnish take on melo-death —- polished, pristinely recorded, full of melancholic melody set to a tempo that hovered around mid-tempo and contemplative. For this narrative concept album, the Insomnium guys got meaner, darker, faster, heavier, and at times, downright brutal. They managed this by injecting their sound with ample doses of black metal tremolo riffing and blastbeat percussion, while vocalist Niilo Sevänen pushed his vocals to a level that can only be described as ferocious, his guttural screaming racing towards you with the intention of a hungry wolf in pursuit of his prey.

This was an album of risks, not only for the aforementioned sonic changes, but for the fearlessness in crafting one forty minute song and releasing it as a singular track (for the physical album, the digital release was broken into seven “parts”, presumably for the purposes of streaming/iTunes sales). If you were one of those physical album buyers like myself, you simply had to submit yourself to a complete album listening experience without the luxury of skipping tracks whenever your twitchy, media-overloaded brain got an impulse to. You were rewarded with one of those rare albums where a flowery description such as “musical journey” was actually applicable, and while this was enhanced by following along with the lyrics and the Sevänen crafted short story it was set to, the high drama of the music was enough to keep our attention on its own. I’ve yet to talk to someone who was “meh” about Winter’s Gate (if you were, by all means post in the comments below!), because I just don’t think anyone expected this out of them. I think most people were lukewarm about 2014’s Shadows From A Dying Sun, and it seems the band also felt that they were slipping into complacency. Its not my favorite Insomnium album (that honor still goes to One For Sorrow), but I wouldn’t fault anyone for saying its theirs.

 

 

9.   Theocracy – Ghost Ship:

Only a little over a month separates this from my original published review of Theocracy’s long-awaited Ghost Ship, but unlike in 2014 where the album of the year winner Triosphere’s The Heart of the Matter was released in December (and was the most unexpected dark horse in Metal Pigeon history), I’d actually been listening consistently to the new Theocracy since late October when it was released. The delay in publishing my review ended up delivering a more accurate take on the album, because it was definitely a grower. At first it wasn’t registering in the same instantaneous manner that their previous two albums were, but as I sussed out in that review, this was largely due to Matt Smith and company injecting these songs with progressive metal elements and stepping away from the pure Euro-power metal track they’d previously been running on. This is an album that deserves the benefit of extra listens and a touch of patience, because there is such a wealth of musical ear candy to rot your ears with here (I mean that in the best way) if you just allow these songs the time to sink into you.

The uptempo, seemingly joyous sounding “Castaway” was listed as one of the year’s best songs, but it was only one highlight among many, such as “Currency In A Bankrupt World”, where the vocals channel Sebastian Bach/Skid Row circa 1992’s Slave to the Grind, while the guitar patterns during the verses expertly channel vintage Queensryche. Smith’s an exceptional vocalist, his highs capable of registers that stop just short of helium heights, still retaining power and downright grit and grime. He has the vibrato of late 90s Tobias Sammett and actually might be a better technical vocalist overall in comparison thanks to his American born ease with pronunciation and phrasing. The band he’s built around his songs excels not only technically, but in achieving that difficult middle ground between surgical technical precision and rock n’ roll swagger, their performances exuberant and barely restrained. Its such a wonder that Theocracy are an American band, despite their European musical foundation, and they’re continuing to succeed while many European bands have lost their way. And also that I, as a secular/non-religious person am able to find myself connecting with music and even lyrics that are written by a devout Christian, for the purposes of expressing and exploring his faith. Metal succeeds where religion cannot.

 

 

10.   Death Angel – The Evil Divide:

I was absolutely convinced that I had written a review for this album shortly after its early summer release, but a trawl backwards through the archives proves me wrong. Strange that… but I guess I thought I did based on just how much I’ve listened to this album over the second half of 2016, returning to it again and again. I’ve only paid attention to a few fellow bloggers 2016 lists (I like to avoid the possibility of influencing my own), but I did watch BangerTV’s Lock Horns Best of 2016 show, and before they aired that they released a Best Thrash Albums of 2016 episode —- asking aloud the question, “(The)Year of Thrash?”. Perhaps they’re right because as that episode suggests, it was a banner year for thrash metal across the spectrum of the subgenre, from the big four to old vanguards such as Testament and newer bands ala Vektor. I’ve never been the biggest Death Angel fan, lamenting the thin vocals of their early records while loving the musicianship and yet finding that their post-reunion albums weren’t catching my attention either despite vocalist Mark Osegueda’s much deepened range. So I was caught entirely off guard by how much I loved The Evil Divide, an album that is a watershed for the band creatively —- full of risks and rewarding payoffs, as well as a truly convincing display of aggression that matched Hatebreed in terms of viciousness for 2016 releases.

Album opener “The Moth” is one of the most adrenaline-pumping, kick down the door songs you’ll ever hear, with that perfect mix of speed and thrashy rhythmic syncopation throughout. The muscular build up to the refrain built on tribal drum beats is somehow one-upped by the fierceness of the chorus, with blazing fast riffs that accelerate nearly out of control as crisp, precision hit gang vocals land, “We die together!”. But the real gem on the album is “Lost”, perhaps Death Angel’s finest moment ever, mid-tempo(!) in its groove and built upon an ascending melodic bridge/chorus that sees Osegueda carrying a song with his vocals alone. He’s a convincing mid-tempo vocalist, full of grit and yet able to somehow smooth that into an actual minor key melody that you could really call a hook. Its almost Hetfield-ian in its pacing and delivery, and that’s surprising not only for its unexpectedness but also for just how carefully it was written. That’s something that defines the entirety of this album, a sense of confidence and purpose in its craftsmanship. We get that feeling because the heaviness doesn’t feel cheap or gimmicky, it feels like a long carried weight, finally unburdened.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 // Part One: The Songs

Time yet again for the culmination of a year’s worth of metal listening, writing, and audibly opining (on the MSRcast) into the annual year end best of lists! Sometime ago I quietly added a link to the main page of the blog up above called “Recurring Features” that handily compiles all the other previous year end lists together in one place, so be sure to check those out if you haven’t yet. For the past few years, I’ve been splitting up the songs and albums lists, and so in continuing that tradition, I’m eager to present part one of The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2016 — the songs! These ten songs were culled from a nominees pool of 23 songs this year, and they’re in part isolated gems off flawed albums as well as highlights from the very best albums of the year. I had fun with this list, while agonizing over the albums list (isn’t that always the way?), hope everyone has fun going through it as well!

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2016:

 

 

1.   Avantasia – “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies” (from the album Ghostlights)

 

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

 

The year’s most surprising artistic comeback success story, Avantasia’s Ghostlights was littered with superb, often stunning songs that were not only expertly written and constructed as only Tobias Sammett could manage, but fun to listen to as well. And at specific moments, they were downright transcendent —- the case in point, the Bob Catley led heart string tugging “A Restless Heart and Obsidian Skies”, a power ballad that might well be a spiritual sibling to the fan favorite “The Story Ain’t Over” (from the Lost In Space Pt 1 EP). Sammett has a magical rapport with Catley, or more accurately, as a songwriter writing for Catley —- channeling Magnum’s sense of dramatic pomp with his own inherent Jim Steinman-esque way with theatricality. Catley is an apt narrator, his raspy yet melodic vocals able to imbue any lyric with a rock n’ roll inspired joie de vivre and yet an appropriate amount of gravitas. Meanwhile Sammett’s ability to let it soar vocally is still unparalleled in power metal. Sure, he doesn’t have the unlimited range that he did during the late 90s/early 00s, but he understands how to pen lyrics and vocal patterns that provide trajectory and lift on a Steve Perry esque level.

This is an absolute gem of a song, with a chorus so rich and beautiful, so aching with indefinable magic that the first time I heard it whilst driving around, I had to pull over in a nearby parking lot just to get my mind right. I’m not being dramatic either, I can vividly recall that memory and the overwhelming rush of what I can only describe as joyous childhood nostalgia that I felt upon listening to it again, and again, and again. It helped that it was near sunset and with a partially overcast sky overhead, and such a backdrop and musically stirred emotional state mirrored the actual lyrics/title of the song. Sammett’s lyrics are stately and romantic in nature, full of atmospheric imagery and a sense of the narrator’s yearning: “Dark is the night, scarlet the moon / Sacred the light in the haze reflecting within…Be still my restless heart / Obsidian’s the sky / Inward you look as you halt / Be still restless heart —- I’m on my way”. I’ll be the first to admit that its not a perfect song, its verses not quite matching the glory of the refrain resulting in a somewhat see-saw song, but that chorus is so unbelievably perfect, I’m willing to forgive what would ordinarily be a major flaw for lesser songwriters. Here, the verses set the mood, almost tempering our expectations, all before that arcing, soaring, perfect chorus rockets us to sheer happiness.

 

2.   Ihsahn – “Mass Darkness” (from the album Arktis.)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0VxbJb_Gs8w&w=560&h=315]

 

Yet another in a long line of 2016 surprises, Ihsahn returned with his sixth and perhaps most accessible solo album since The Adversary with Arktis., an album that owed perhaps more to classic metal song craft  (read: riffs n’ hooks) than it did to his post-black metal avant garde experimentation. I enjoyed the album a great deal, some tracks more than others ( the saxophone solo wasn’t so bad this time around!), but I was totally blown away by “Mass Darkness”, an uptempo, three minute long adrenaline rush of arena ready black metal that is miles away from the usual dense and complex songwriting Ihsahn usually engages in. Its the best chorus of his career, featuring a genuine hook built upon guest vocalist Matt Heafy’s (Trivium and noted black metal fanboy) repeated refrain “Give in!… Give in to darkness!”, with lyrics that are some of the most convincingly parent-worrying in ages. What’s really special here is that for all its accessibility, “Mass Darkness” still very much retains Ihsahn’s DNA, heard in unusual guitar effects, counter-intuitive musical patterns, a solo that owes more to Wagner than Tipton, and a sense of dark theatricality  that permeates the entire song. Give in indeed.

 

3.    Haken – “Earthrise” (from the album Affinity)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnZdtpDd9-A&w=560&h=315]

 

I was properly introduced to London-based prog-metallers Haken this year through Affinity, having been aware of the band’s name in passing for awhile now. Having no idea or expectations of what to expect, I played through the album and came away more than impressed with the entire affair, especially its prog-metal exploration of 80s influences such as Rush, Toto, and Van Halen. There was one song I kept coming back around to in return trips to the album, and I’d always have to play it first, last, and a few extra times in the middle, and that was the cinematic “Earthrise”. Best described as 90s alternative rock in a prog blender (well, perhaps not the best description…), this is the hookiest track on the album and one of the most uplifting songs I heard in all of 2016. Not quite a power ballad and not quite rockin’ in its tempo, it played somewhere in the middle, built on bouncy rhythms and interlocking synth parts with some excellent, sprightly percussion dancing all throughout. Vocalist Ross Jennings takes a little getting used to (some people don’t enjoy his vocals when he’s not letting it rip from his throat), and you’ll either likely know right away what your tolerance level is for unusual vocalists when you hear him. I enjoyed his earnestness in this song, and wasn’t surprised to see through iTunes statistics that this was my second most played song of 2016.

 

 

4.   Myrath – “Believer” (from the album Legacy)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uM1d7C8aOWk&w=560&h=315]

 

I think we’ve all been bombarded with enough talk about how 2016 was a seemingly downcast and darkened year for society, be it through everyone’s endless lamenting over celebrity deaths, the very understandable grief over terrible tragedies all around the world, and of course, *cough* presidential elections. I’ve been guilty of wallowing in it as well, and though I’ve tried to distance myself a bit from all that stuff, the truth is that 2016 was a bit of a crap year for me personally as well. So in looking back, I’m amused to find that I somewhat subconsciously began favoring very positive or happy or downright euphoric music over dark and grim stuff. Enter Myrath, whose Legacy album was one of the early 2016 releases and whose lead off single “Believer” never really left my rotation for any extended period of time. Euphoric is really the best adjective for this song, a celebratory rush of positivity, which only sounds corny if you’ve never really been in need of it. Its also a perfect microcosm of Myrath’s impressively Middle-Eastern infused take on metal, with sweeping violins playing ethnically informed arrangements in between the band’s epic, ambitious progressive metal. Vocalist Zaher Zorgati has a perfect voice for the band,  accented clean vocals to welcome newcomers (his pronunciation of “bandwagon” is certainly interesting), but powerful enough to give his lyrics about “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and throwing away yesterday a real sense of belief and passion. The music video (linked above) was kickstarter-ed, and while the song is better off without it, we can’t begrudge them some Prince of Persia fanboying, as tempting as it may be to say something…

 

 

5.   Hatebreed – “A.D.” (from the album The Concrete Confessional)

 

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

 

Hitting with the force of a gut punch, or perhaps that black and white footage of the cannon ball slamming into the fat guy’s stomach, Hatebreed’s “A.D.” was my go-to during a year when I was frequently in the mood for something raging and snarlingly angry. More than any other band, this was the sound of rage incarnate, and its one of the catchiest and heaviest songs of 2016, at times owing more to thrash metal ala post-1990 Slayer than anything hardcore related. Its lyrics are startlingly open ended despite their specificity, “It’s time to rethink this dream you call American / Corrupt beliefs that some will call their heritage”, a sentiment that could apply to fans around the world in addition to those of us here in the States. Vocalist Jamey Jasta has a precision oriented way with rhythmic syncopation in his lyrics and vocal patterns, just check out the 2:04 mark onwards when he sings “Now hear the media fools discuss the killer’s mind / Staring at the screen to tell us what they find / Manifesto, dollar worship, get on your knees / So they can sell us a cure for the American disease”. That syncopation alone adds that extra teeth gritting power to already sharpened, well written lyrics. The crazy thing about The Concrete Confessional is that it had two other cuts that were in the nominee pool for best songs of the year, a fact that surprised me as much as it likely has you.

 

 

6.   Serenity – “The Perfect Woman” (from the album Codex Atlanticus)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RleBiMcx144&w=560&h=315]

 

Serenity’s first post-Thomas Buchberger album was certainly far from flawless, but it wasn’t the complete disaster that it could have been say for other bands when a key songwriter leaves the lineup. Crucial in this was vocalist Georg Neuhauser’s longtime role as co-songwriter and the primary writer of the vocal lines throughout the Serenity catalog. He shrewdly realized that without Buchberger writing songs built around his Kamelot-ian riffs, songs for Codex Atlanticus would have to be written largely around his vocal melodies first and foremost. But he’s a gifted vocalist, and has an inborn knack for understanding where a melody should go and how it should direct the arrangement of the song, from guitar parts to orchestral arrangements (the Tony Kakko gene in other words). Nowhere was this more evident than on the spectacular Broadway balladry of “The Perfect Woman”, a song ostensibly about Leonardo DaVinci painting The Mona Lisa. I mention Broadway, and yes, this song owes a lot to songwriting for musical theater, taking into account everything from the speed up vocal gymnastics during “I got a sensation that my creation in a quite disturbing way / Has come to life”, while jubilant horns punctuate behind him with musical exclamation marks —- down to the decision to throw in female vocals on the second verse (courtesy of the always on point Amanda Somerville) that serve as a sort of audience chorus in a perspective shift away from Georg’s first person take on Da Vinci’s own thoughts. Its a strange moment but weirdly amusing in its own way, and one I’m glad to have.

 

 

7.   Purson – “Electric Landlady” (from the album Desire’s Magic Theatre)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=boscR_9EE5Q&w=560&h=315]

 

Winner of the most clever music/lyric video of 2016 award, metal or otherwise (and let’s be real, calling Purson metal is stretching genre definitions… but they’re here by association), “Electric Landlady” was also the band’s quintessential calling card off Desire’s Magic Theatre, their incense smoke love letter to 60s psychedelic rock. Its a bouncy number, built on nimble guitar lines with a slight crunch (but not too much!) and all the Hammond dressing that psych-rock of this ilk requires wrapped in studio production that is decidedly analog sounding (if there’s anything digital here, its cleverly disguised). I was fortunate enough to see Purson live earlier in late April of 2016 here in Houston towards the beginning of their US tour, which I believe was a mix of supporting shows and solo headliners. We got one of the latter, and it was at a local haunt named Rudyards, upstairs in the venue’s small live music room where no more than 70 people could probably fit comfortably. It was a fun night, and Purson were extremely entertaining and convincing as a live band —- little did I know that it’d be there last trip to Houston. Purson only just recently announced their breakup for “personal reasons”, and that’s a shame because they had the potential to blow up in a big way. We’ll always have this song and its gorgeous, tribute to 1960’s groovy, swingin’ London visual companion.

 

 

8.   Suidakra – “The Serpent Within” (from the album Realms of Odoric)

 

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

 

I have such affection for Suidakra since becoming a die hard fan of theirs back in 2013 through their awesome (and Metal Pigeon Best Albums list winner) Eternal Defiance. Since then, I’ve poured through their immense back catalog, gained a basket full of favorite songs across the spectrum of their discography and have declared them to be one of the new leading lights in modern melodic death metal (even though they’ve been doing this for nearly two decades now). Simply put, no one else sounds like them, with their blending of folk elements and melo-death, as well as their arms wide open embrace of power metal sensibilities in the way of hooks and clean vocals. I love bands who can honor traditions yet still imprint their own identity upon things. So it was a slight let down when I finally published my review of the highly anticipated Realms of Odoric, that I knew it wouldn’t find its way to the best albums list for 2016. That being said, I haven’t been able to quit “The Serpent Within” —- like at all… its one of my most listened to songs of all 2016 releases according to iTunes and its that mesmerizing chorus that’s pulling me back in every time. Arkadius Antonik’s lyrics here hit a poetic nerve, as I love the line during the chorus “This life is but a spiral path / The serpent lurks inside”. The entire song is a lyrical gem constructed with fantasy motifs, yet able to work as a real world meditation on the value of solitude and inward peace as a bulwark against modernity.

 

 

9.   Katatonia – “Old Heart Falls” (from the album The Fall of Hearts)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIGBNc2nFZA&w=560&h=315]

 

I’m not sure if I ever managed to resolve my feelings about Katatonia’s The Fall of Hearts, and that’s kinda par for the course with my relationship with their more recent albums. They’re all pretty good, certainly have their moments but as whole, cohesive works they somehow fail to impress me across the board. Ditto for this new album which I really gave the benefit of a couple weeks of regular listening, often times for the simple pleasure of hearing “Old Heart Falls”, perhaps one of the most beautiful and rich slices of doomy, depressive rock you’ll ever hear. Its seemingly difficult for bands to write songs with perfect buildups, but Katatonia manage that here: vocals accompanied only by wounded guitar notes floating into the ether over a bed of 70s prog keyboards usher us in, then the rhythm section slips in behind a descending chord figure that continues through ascension. The bridge comes after a soft pause, audible bass setting the mood with simple patterns, and then distortion comes, slowly growing louder and Jonas Renkse’s sublime vocal melody careens forward, set to thoughtful lyrics, “For every dream that is left behind me… / …With every war that will rage inside me…”. Its hypnotic and alluring despite its bleak-hearted subject matter and downcast perspective. Try as they might, American bands rarely get music like this right… its just something that comes natural to Scandinavians, and that’s okay. Bonus points for the stylish, austere, and inventive lyric video.

 

 

10.   Borknagar – “Winter Thrice” (from the album Winter Thrice)

 

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDrrKv2wjvk&w=560&h=315]

 

When this album first came out I figured it would be in regular rotation throughout the year, being a relatively strong and intriguing listen throughout. But the truth is that it sort of fell off for me after the first few months for reasons I’m still uncertain about. That didn’t happen with 2012’s Urd, an album that I contend could vie with Empiricism for their best ever. That album gave us the Best Songs list makin’ “The Earthling”, which is my favorite Borknagar song of all tid(!), and fortunately Winter Thrice throws its own contender for that spot in the mix with its star studded title track. I use the term “star” loosely of course, but in black metal terms, a single song with vocal parts by Lars Nedland, ICS Vortex, Kristoffer Rygg (aka Garm), and of course Andreas Hedlund (aka Vintersorg) can aptly be described as studded by something or another. Its a tremendous series of performances, each vocal filled with enough personality to be discernible from one another and nuanced in their own manner. The song itself is epic, with angular riffs and brutal screaming vocals stacked against each other in frigid formation, unfazed by the warm fires of the lead guitars and soaring clean vox lines. It also received a gorgeous music video treatment with Garm playing the role of the jarl in Whiterun…er, somewhere in Norway!

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2015:

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Looking Ahead at 2015!

Happy New Years everyone! Alright I’m a little late, but I wanted to let those year end lists marinate out there for a bit before issuing another update, as well as allowing myself a little break from any kind of “required” listening. How have I spent my intervening few weeks off listening wise? Oh you know, a little sweeping balladry from Sarah Brightman, revisiting classic Celtic-punk albums by The Pogues, reveling in Basil Poledouris’ epic score for Conan the Barbarian (the original 1982 classic, mind you), and metal-wise blanketing myself with loads of classic Blind Guardian as a side effect of my now unrestrained anticipation for their new album. Regarding the latter, its our favorite bards who instantly win the crown for the most anticipated album of 2015 —- I mean, who are we kidding here? The German legends may be skirting the edge of their regular four year studio release schedule (that ‘2015’ is going to throw off the 98-02-06-10 symmetry of their last four albums), but in these final weeks leading up to the release of Beyond the Red Mirror, I’m remembering everything I love about the band and all is forgiven. That being said, what are the runners up as my most anticipated metal releases/events?

As it turns out, the number of potential/possible/likely 2015 releases from major metal names is quite lengthy. So I’m going to try something new and lay out my most anticipated in a rather rapid fire list in alphabetical order with a thought or two about what I expect, or (more importantly) am hoping for:

 


 

Angra – Secret Garden: One of the first cannon shots of 2015 is the debut of Fabio Lione in his role as Angra’s third official vocalist, being the successor to Edu Falaschi who left in 2012. Look, I wasn’t wild about the Edu era although it had its occasionally good to great moments, but I’m completely un-enthused about the very idea of the Lione era. I was never sold on Rhapsody (of Fire ™), in large part owing to how little I found to like about Lione’s thin, wafery delivery. I respected the heck out of the guy for helping out Kamelot on their Khan-less tour a few years back, despite having to acknowledge that his vocals were completely wrong for the band’s tone and mid-tempo stylings. So on paper Angra should be a better fit for him than his stint in Kamelot, but the pre-release single “Newborn Me” is completely underwhelming so far. It won’t be long before I drop a review of this one, Angra daring to challenge Blind Guardian with a January release (the very idea…).

 

Cradle of FilthHammer Of The Witches (working title): In the past few years, the idea of a new Cradle album was met with a sad level of indifference from myself and as it seemed many others. Paul Allender’s role as guitarist was long past its expiration date, heard in recycled riffs and uninspired songwriting. Yet his departure in 2014 was surprising as it was enticing —- with all due respect to Allender, its now transparently obvious that he wanted to move on years before but the relatively steady nature of Cradle’s existence and operations kept him around for years and albums longer. The new guitarists, two guys named Ashok and Richard Shaw (there’s some dichotomy for you) are relatively unknown quantities, but Dani’s recent quote held some promise, “It’s gone back to the twin-guitar harmonies — very fast and ornate and atmospherically spooky, but lots of melody. I think it’s gonna surprise a lot of people.” A new lineup, fresh blood at the guitar spot —- it worked for fellow British metallers Judas Priest in a big way. Its make or break time for Cradle, I demand something in the vein of Midian!

 

The Darkness – Cliffhanger (tentative title): Yeah, yeah I know —– “Dear Pigeon, why are you wasting my eye strength on a fairly ludicrous joke band that’s barely even hard rock, let alone metal in any way, shape, or form?”. Longtime readers however will remember that The Darkness actually ended up on my best songs of 2012 list with a gem off their excellent Hotcakes album. And let me address a few things that tend to linger on about this band: They’re not a joke band, check their cited influences, actually listen to their music, and you’ll realize the Hawkins brothers bleed classic Thin Lizzy, Queen, AC/DC, and a splash of Def Leppard. More importantly, they write wonderfully catchy songs with clever hooks and turns of phrase, with loose, Izzy n’ Slash melodic guitar interplay. Are they full of a particularly British sense of humour? Absolutely, but its part of their charm, their music is made with such attention to craft and detail that it demonstrates a conviction that a “joke” band simply wouldn’t bother with.

 

Dimmu Borgir – TBA: It will likely be just over five long years since the release of Dimmu’s last album, the unfortunately titled but otherwise decent Abrahadabra. I loved the eponymous “Dimmu Borgir” off that album, one of the band’s catchiest singles in years (it had a pretty decent music video too), but the majority of the album made me wonder how much there was possibly left to explore in their heavily symphonic black metal style. I’m not really sure what to expect from these guys now, but it really seems like a stylistic evolution ala Satyricon might be in order. Blut Aus Nord just dropped a new album of classic Norwegian second wave black metal that is bracing, fresh, and revitalized… proving in one fell swoop that there’s still life left in the old traditions. Maybe the way forward for Dimmu is to look back in order to progress their sound. More of the same from them would be disappointing in a way, especially after a five year gap.

 

Enslaved – In Times: Due in early March, the next Enslaved album is right up there among my most anticipated of 2015, this despite the band’s frustrating lack of Texas tour dates on yet another “North American” tour. That aside, I’m eager to hear what direction these guys veer off into this time. Their last album RIITIIR (a 2012 year end lister) was a blending of the progressive tendencies of 2008’s Vertebrae with traditional metal and rock elements, a stark contrast to the more punishingly straightforward black metal of 2010’s Axioma Ethica Odini. To say that the band has been on a seesaw of stylistic shifts is an understatement —- Enslaved is simply the most unpredictable band in metal today. Personally I’m hoping for a return to a more primal, moodier, mid-career era sound, akin to the Viking infused charm of Below the Lights and Isa. If you’re new to Enslaved, consider the latter two albums your assigned homework.

 

Faith No More – TBA: If the band’s 2014 single “Motherfucker” was any indication, we’re in for a treat. I love the way that song didn’t sound like anything I had ever heard from the band in their 90s heyday, yet still sounded unmistakably like Faith No More in all their ugly, beautiful, and baffling glory. It also put to rest any remote moaning about the lack of Jim Martin’s involvement, as Jon Hudson is as creative and adaptable a guitarist as the band needs (surely his work on Album of the Year should’ve sold people on that). More promising is that the band are recording the new album entirely on their own without the involvement of a record label, and given what they got away with when on a major label, who knows what juxtapositions and bizarreness we’ll get from song-to-song. I’m just so happy to have the band back, their work felt incomplete upon their disbandment in 1998, and there are precious few bands that have the kind of personality that FNM had in spades. Maybe a Metal Pigeon Recommends feature is in order for these guys prior to the album release… something I’ll keep in mind.

 

Iron Maiden – TBA: Much like Dimmu Borgir, a five year gap will separate Maiden’s upcoming album from its predecessor, too long of a time in my opinion for a band whose members are pushing 60 (if not already past it). Its been frustrating to have this blog out for so many years now with absolutely zero writing on my favorite band of all time (I mean seriously, I’d have expected a Bruce solo album in the interim at least). Maiden has apparently been busy recording, the proof of which was delivered in the form of a cryptic fan club Christmas card in December that featured Eddie walking into a studio. Their last effort, The Final Frontier was a great album, with songs that harkened back to their Brave New World style with a splash of Somewhere Back In Time’s futuristic keyboard arrangements. Sure Steve Harris does tend to get a little long-winded, but its my slight hope that Bruce and Adrian might get more involved in the songwriting and balance out his longer compositions with some of their concise, catchy songwriting-duo magic.

 

Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful: Second only to Blind Guardian as my most anticipated album of 2015, I have the highest of hopes for the debut of Floor Jansen as the third Nightwish vocalist. She is perhaps the most adaptable of them all, capable of classical operatics, as well as the wildly versatile pop-rock accessibility of Anette Olzon. Having seen Jansen with the band in concert myself, I thought her most valuable resource as a vocalist was her ability to project power in a way that both Olzon and Tarja were unable to. Simply put, she can belt it out when she wants to, an ability that immediately makes her the metalized equal to Marco Hietala’s soaring, accented tenor. Of course Tuomas Holopainen’s songwriting will be my primary focus of attention, and judging by his choice of song titles, cited inspirational reading, and guest narrator in Richard Dawkins —- we’re in for a thematic album at the very least (something entirely new for the band). Its hard to envision a Nightwish album better than 2011’s Imaginaerum, but here’s to Holopainen giving it his best shot.

 

Queensryche – TBA: While Queensryche’s self-titled debut with new vocalist Todd LaTorre was a solid return to form, it had severe flaws. The most glaring of which was song length, most of the cuts on the album hovering in the three to four minute range that could’ve benefited from additional verses or expanded guitar solos. Now with all the legal battle drama behind them, this is Queensryche’s time to truly get back to their progressive metal roots —- especially with their debut at Wacken Open Air (finally!) only eight months away. This is a band that needs to be out there touring with actual modern metal artists, not 80s glam-rock bands, and hopefully their time at Wacken will yield fruit in that regard as well as serve as their re-introduction to the European metal audience as a whole. Oh and getting the album out before that show would be good too.

Scorpions – Return to Forever: This is surprising on a number of levels, as 2010’s Sting in the Tail was supposed to be the band’s final studio album, and its subsequent tour was to be their last ever. Even as recently as their late 2013 MTV Unplugged in Athens the band was demonstrably in winding down mode, delving into deep cuts from their discography for that album as well as openly discussing their career in retrospective terms in interviews surrounding the project. An additional phase of their winding down was to step briefly into the studio to flesh out some song ideas stockpiled in the past and quietly release them —- this idea apparently has blown up into a full-fledged new studio album with a world tour on its heels to follow. I guess I’m okay with this… it does lend a bit of irony to their song “The Best Is Yet to Come”,  it being the closing song on the track listing of that aforementioned “final” album. One wonders if Return to Forever will be their swansong, or they’ll stick around for one more.

 


 

Noteworthy Metal Related Events:

Savatage at Wacken Open Air: Fifteen years after the last Savatage tour, the band is getting back together for a last hurrah on the biggest stage in the metal universe. Or is it really the last? Chris Caffery recently suggested otherwise, and its anyone’s guess as to whether or not that will be a tour or a brand new studio album. Seeing as how I’m going to have to check out the Wacken performance on the livecast, I’m hoping for a subsequent North American tour. Oh and if they’re going to do this Wacken show without getting some additional cameras in there for a DVD recording, I will be a tad annoyed. Needless to say this is one of the most widely anticipated metal events of the year.

 

Nightwish / Sabaton / Delain in Houston: Yeah this is a personal one, or maybe not if you’re catching one of the many tour dates this amazing bill will be stopping at on its spring North American trek. This will mark my third time seeing Nightwish, the second time I’ll be seeing Delain, and jeez… the seventh or eighth time I’ll have witnessed Sabaton and their high adrenaline stage performance. Should be one to remember.

 

Will Immortal release their new album: I guess I should be asking, is Abbath going to win the rights to the Immortal name so he can release the album that he’s already recorded with other musicians? Read up on this if you are just now hearing of it, but it basically boils down to Abbath vs Demonaz/Horgh over the rights to the Immortal trademark. I’m firmly on the side of Abbath in this dispute, because after all its his vocals and his riffs that make up the bulk of the band’s discography that we love so much. He is for all intents and purposes Immortal —- and even though Demonaz has been the band’s lyricist, we’re not talking Louise Gluck levels of poetic brilliance here, I’m sure Abbath can more than manage them on his own. If Abbath’s accusations about Demonaz and Horgh’s feet dragging are true, then its appalling to hear of them trying to deny everyone a new album with lengthy legal proceedings.

And that wraps it up, hope it helps a little in setting the metal stage for 2015 —- here’s to a great year for everybody!

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

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

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

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2014:

 

 

1. Triosphere – The Heart of the Matter:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

3. Dawn of Destiny – F.E.A.R.:

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

 5. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls:

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

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

 

 

6. Primordial – Where Greater Men Have Fallen:

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

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

 

 

7. Sabaton – Heroes:

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

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

 

 

8. Grand Magus – Triumph and Power:

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

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

 

 

9. Behemoth – The Satanist:

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

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

 

 

10. Noble Beast – Noble Beast:

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

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

 

The Metal Pigeon on Podcasts!

I don’t like to pretend that any of you follow my every move in the world of metal blogging, social media, and related activities. So I’ll safely assume that most of you are unaware that I’ve been co-hosting a metal podcast for a few months now. Its called the MSRcast (named after the long defunct zine Mainstream Resistance) and I join its founder and host Cary G to discuss and debate current events and releases in metal, as well as anything else that’s running through our minds at that moment. MSRcast is going onto its ninth year of existence which might very well make it one of the longest running metal related podcasts out there. In the handful of times I’ve appeared on its episodes throughout this year, first as a guest and finally as an official co-host, the show has undergone a shift in format away from being loaded with music in favor of more discussion and debate. It was a natural progression I think, in that we were trying to keep episode lengths reasonable for podcasts (meaning in the hour and a half-ish range) and we had to make a choice between trimming the amount of songs we played or keeping our chatter to a minimum. Seeing as how the latter would never happen (never!), we decided to cut the amount of songs by half, and to play them one at a time within the flow of our discussions instead of in multi-song blocks.

 

The change has surprisingly resulted in some immediate positive feedback from existing listeners of the show and we’re rather proud of the new format as well. I’ve bounced around in sampling various metal podcasts/vidcasts for the past few years and disappointingly few of them managed to be compelling to me in any meaningful way. So many of them have well meaning hosts that come across as uninformed, or having vague takes that lack depth. The worst of them are far more concerned with demonstrating the amount of alcohol they can consume while recording —- as if that somehow adds anything worthwhile for the listener. Most of them are simply long playlists, which I find boring —- I want to know why these songs are being presented, what is the context behind them? The majority of podcasts that I love to listen to tend to be non-metal in nature, and they were my guideposts in helping to forge this new format for MSRcast. I love the analytical nature of the guys behind the Grantland NFL podcast and the B.S. Report; as well as the joyful creativity of the Nerdist podcast, The Indoor Kids, and You Made It Weird. Bringing those approaches to a metal discussion is fun, and something that I hope translates.

 

This new format began with our October 3rd release of MSRcast episode 157 where we discussed everything from Opeth’s Pale Communion, a slew of power metal releases, and a brief musing on the U2 album release controversy. And we’ve just released MSRcast episode 158 (that’s quick for us!), where we’re joined by Dave of the Metal Geeks podcast (more on that show in a sec) to discuss everything from the upcoming Sanctuary album, Jesper Stromblad’s social media bombshell, new music from Allen/Lande and Bloodbath as well as the Behemoth and Mastodon controversies.  That’s just a small fraction of what we actually managed to get to, its a loaded episode and I hope you guys check it out. We’re on iTunes (just search for us through the iTunes store and hit subscribe —- it helps us and makes things easier for you), and you can easily find us on our host sponsor’s website at Metal Injection dot net. I also dropped in on the newest episode of Metal Geeks, the sister show to MSRcast, to discuss a ton of topics about videogames, movies, TV shows and anything else that fits under their huge umbrella of “geek” related discussion. It was a blast to record and I can’t wait to drop in on more of them! Give these episodes a try, throw them on the iPod/iPhone or whatever you use and play them on your commute, or better yet on your headphones at work! We’ll make the time go by faster I promise.

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