I’ve never been as relieved and ready to pen a year end list as I am now, for this most grueling and daunting of years. Welcome to part one of the annual best of feature, once again focusing on the top ten songs of the year with the albums list coming soon in part two. For this songs list, I don’t think it’s that surprising to state that this year more than any other, mood had a lot to do with what ended up here. You’ll notice a distinct lack of anything particularly extreme, and that’s not by coincidence. It’s only recently, as in the past few months, that I’ve started to listen to a lot of extreme metal again, because during those early pandemic months, I just needed it’s diametric opposite. So it’s perhaps accurate in saying that this list might have been ever so slightly different had 2020 been a normal year, although I suppose that could be said for so many things about life in general. Reminiscing aside, like anyone else I’m not sorry to see the backside of this year as we collectively slam the door behind it, but it’s worth remembering that it did yield some truly magical music amid the chaos.
1. Seven Spires – “Succumb” (from the album Emerald Seas)
Such is the magnificence of Seven Spires’ Emerald Seas that no less than four songs from it could have occupied this top slot for 2020, but the most charmingly gorgeous and daringly adventurous of them all was the monumental “Succumb”. Built on regal guitar melodies and a restrained yet punchy orchestral arrangement, “Succumb” is largely a vehicle for the devastatingly masterful songwriting and performance of vocalist Adrienne Cowan. She’s versatile and adept at seemingly everything; capable of fiercely abrasive harsh vox, gritty rock n’ roll belting, and alternately gorgeous clean singing reminiscent of Sara Squadrani’s heartwarming, crystalline tones. Here she manages to merge the latter two in a swaggering, heroic vocal performance so convincing and passionate you’d swear she’s singing it while swinging from the rigging of a ship. And her lyrics are pure poetry, full of inventive phrasing and evocative imagery, the chorus boasting the most striking moment —- “…And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone…”. Her talent as a lyricist shows her direct influence from the mighty Roy Khan, and like the master himself, she knows how to marry those words to unforgettable melodies so as to make their story come to life every time we listen.
2. Fellowship – “Glint” (from the album Fellowship)
The lead off track from the debut EP of UK power metal upstarts Fellowship, “Glint” is the reason why you’ll find so many of the peeps at r/PowerMetal convinced these guys are going to be the subgenre’s saving grace when their highly anticipated new album comes out (hopefully in 2021). While I personally think the state of power metal is more than fine, thriving actually, “Glint” is the first song I’ve seen that’s managed to collectively excite dewy eyed optimists like myself and bitter, cynical curmudgeons alike. It’s brilliance is self-evident, the band’s core identity and style presented in it’s light-footed orchestral sweep and sway, it’s classic-era Sonata Arctica guitarwork and vocal-centric melodicism. The whole band is deserving of praise for their work here, but I want to single out vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry in particular for his unconventional and inspired approach towards his lyrics, which are definitely a cut above the standard power metal fare. The self-empowerment theme running through this song, exemplified in that unforgettable refrain (“I’ve always been worthy…”) has certainly been expressed in the genre before, but rarely so effectively and directly. And there’s something so right and timely about that directness —- we all needed to hear this song this year.
3. Mors Principium Est – “Lost In A Starless Aeon” (from the album Seven)
Striking like a guided missile, this absolute masterpiece from the new two man lineup Mors Principium Est album shot it’s way onto this list upon first listen. Why? Because of those incredibly melodic, almost neo-classical leads, rippling along a classic melodeath riff storming right out of the gate, and the catchiest little double figure-tail pattern I’ve heard in ages in that chorus. The solo midway through is built on beautiful ascending and descending patterns, a flurry of dizzying wizardry. Guitarist Andy Gillion delivered his finest songwriting moment for the band here, not only staying true to the band’s signature sound but refining it into being one of the greatest slices of melodeath to ever grace my ears. This is not only an instant classic banger, it’s emblematic of why when melodeath is done right, and I mean absolutely right, it’s the most viscerally exciting and satisfying subgenre of metal.
4. Unleash The Archers – “Abyss” (from the album Abyss)
The undeniable centerpiece of a spectacular album, the title track for Abyss proved that “Apex” wasn’t a fluke, that the band had developed the compositional skills to handle long pieces with skill and dexterity. This is a seven minute song that always feels like a three to four minute listen, usually with me getting irritated that it’s already over and I have to go back and click it again (the brazen inconvenience of it all). The marriage of synths with the band’s rocketing power metal was central in why the new album worked so well, and that can be heard as a microcosm here. And really, Brittney’s vocals subsume everything to her will anyway, her powerful performance here artistically depicted by the all consuming black hole in the video above.
5. Judicator – “Gloria” (from the album Let There Be Nothing)
Sometimes it doesn’t have to be that complicated to get on the best songs list. A few seriously crunchy, headbanging riffs, a fantastic vocal melody and an unforgettable call and response chorus —- “Gloria” had it all. The added dimension of John Yelland’s incredibly Hansi-ian vocal tone is one of the major selling points of Judicator’s sound for sure, but this was one of those songs where Judicator married their influences to something more inborn, a further refining of their own sound. The guest vocals by Mercedes Victoria were an inspired touch, utilizing female vocals in the most aggressive passages rather than in a typical beauty and the beast setup. Guitarist Tony Cordisco left the band after this album’s release, but hopefully the new lineup has a few more “Gloria’s” left in the bag.
6. Falconer – “Desert Dreams” (from the album From A Dying Ember)
Falconer guitarist Stefan Weinerhall penned the dreamily sweet melancholy ballad “Rejoice the Adorned” to serve as the emotional gut punch of their swan song album From A Dying Ember, and it certainly lived up to expectations. But for me, the last Falconer album’s most poignant tune was actually the second track on the record, the storming, attacking “Desert Dreams”. Not only was it cut from the same cloth as the band’s first two classic albums, all drama molded into furiously uptempo hard rock riffing with medieval-tinged melodic twists, but Mathias Blad does that effortless thing where his vocals stay at their own chosen tempo, regardless of the chaos erupting around him. It’s such an iconic sounding slice of classic Falconer —- and I’ll straight up admit that when Blad comes in with his layered harmony vocals around the 3:35 mark, I get all the feels. Aching bittersweet feels.
7. Sorceror – “Lamenting Of The Innocent” (from the album Lamenting Of The Innocent)
It’s rare that the longest track on an album winds up being it’s most spectacular song, but the title track to Sorcerer’s newest album fits that bill. A slowly, softly building atmospheric epic, “Lamenting Of The Innocent” is a journey unto itself, with distinct sections with separate melodic motifs that are equally compelling. It’s a spiritual cousin to the glorious “Unbearable Sorrow” off 2017’s The Crowning Of The Fire King, which also made that year’s best songs list (also the longest song on that album, must be #JustSorcererThings). The punishing, brutal vocal led bridges are contrasted with Kristian Niemann’s ever breathtaking swirling, hypnotic lead guitar melodies draping the chorus —- his clear tone and emotional phrasing makes you feel like you’re floating into the night air.
8. Magnum – “Where Are You Eden?” (from the album The Serpent Rings)
This majestic, surging gem from Magnum’s early January album The Serpent Rings is emblematic of the renewed spirit and vigor the band has found since 2018’s Lost On The Road To Eternity. Built on Rick Benton’s tension raising keyboard orchestration and some fairly aggro, border-line metallic riffing from Tony Clarkin, this song resembles something closer to Avantasia than the British rock that Magnum is typically associated with. And of course Bob Catley’s participation with that band recently adds fuel to that fire, but there’s truly something positively Tobias Sammet-ian about the heightened arc that Catley rides with his performance on this explosive chorus.
9. Dynazty – “Hologram” (from the album The Dark Delight)
Sometimes all it takes is to be at the right place at the right time… and to be a glorious power ballad of course. I can’t tell you how much I listened to this song around the early weeks of the pandemic, this album having come out in early April when everything was falling apart. I reviewed The Dark Delight among other albums as a means to distraction, but “Hologram”, with its comforting piano intro, plush orchestral arrangement, and gloriously skyrocketing chorus seemed to stick with me long after. It was one of those songs I kept on heavy rotation particularly around the April-June months for it’s uplifting, mood enlivening qualities. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that songs with that kind of power are more valuable than gold.
10. Boisson Divine – “Libertat” (from the album La Halha)
The euphoric, life-affirming single we needed in late-May is the capstone of one of the year’s most surprising, out of left-field albums. Boisson Divine’s blend of Celtic-punk spirit married to power metal guitars and their own Gascony folk-music DNA is honed to a razor’s edge here with an unforgettable hook. If the music video doesn’t lay it out pretty clearly, this is a song celebrating life in a fundamentally joyful spirit. And this song’s timing, post/during lockdowns was much needed, its chorus translated as “But one day you will escape / And you will find your freedom”. The band helpfully added English subtitles for this song’s music video, but I suspect most of us understood what they were singing about anyway.
Almost halfway through November, and only weeks to go before we can put 2020 to bed along with the memes that come with it. I hope everyone’s back to some kind of mental happy place (or at least not freaking out) now that the election is over, that was a fun week wasn’t it? We took a break from all of that last Friday to record a new episode of the MSRcast that’s out now if you want to get a broader perspective on recent new releases; since the reviews I’ve written below are more of a compilation of the past two months plus of stuff I’ve been listening to. There’s more than a few intriguing records looked at below, and we’ve got a handful more coming down the pike in these last few weeks of November (and even a new Persuader (what?!) album in December) to look forward to as well. Let’s see what else, oh, I’m going a little stir crazy having not been to a show in over a year now… have been looking at local clubs around the area, considering the scant few options for a gig just to get out and about. Fortunately it looks like I’ll be making my way to the Texas Renaissance Festival this year after all on Black Friday where there will be live bands (albeit not metal, but it’s something), so maybe that will assuage the concert fix for a time. Probably not though. Anyway, let me know in the comments below how you’re dealing or not dealing with concert deprivation! Anyone thrown a backyard grindcore show out of desperation yet?
Amaranthe – Manifest:
Earlier this month, Sweden’s metallic-pop purveyors Amaranthe released their sixth album to date, Manifest, also their second with Dynazty’s Nils Molin at the co-clean-vocal helm. I’ve long been on record on this blog as being a somewhat critical yet unabashed fan of these guys for their highly distinctive blending of pop, EDM gloss, and metalcore. Enough has been said about their sound, it is what it is and you’ll either be into their sensibilities or completely put off by it (enjoyment of pop music, whether openly or in denial mode is a huge prerequisite here, no one’s listening to Amaranthe for the sick riffs). I do want to take a second to say that I’m more than a little grateful to have a new Amaranthe album released during this year because it made me spend time with their catalog in the past few weeks and have some of the unabashed streak of positivity that’s running through their music rub off on me. But regarding Manifest, the real questions here are after getting a mulligan on Helix for it being their first album without the aid of founding member and core co-singer/songwriter Jake Lundberg (now in Cyhra), have guitarist/keyboardist Olof Morck and singer Elize Ryd adjusted to being the band’s songwriting team on their own, and consequently have they adjusted to writing for their new vocalist? The answer is that they have succeeded to some degree, and yet, not obviously so at the same time —- though to be sure, Manifest is a far better record than Helix overall. Molin’s vocals tend to fit better on these songs, even though there are examples where it isn’t quite the perfect fit you’d want it to be.
Take a song like “Make It Better” and consider just how jarring the transition is between Ryd’s chorus to his solo vocal in the second verse section, just tonally speaking it doesn’t work. One of the things I harped on about in my review for Helixwas how Molin has a voice that’s nicely suited for the soaring, belting, heavy metal leaning approach called for in his other band Dynazty, but he sounds stilted and out of place in a tighter space, which is predominantly where he finds himself in most of Amaranthe’s songs. Lundberg’s vocals were far more suited to a Bon Jovi-ian adjacent modern hard rock context, a nimbler, grittier, less belty voice that made the transitions between he and Ryd almost seamless while still retaining a striking enough difference in their tone to serve as a perfect complement. In a band where you have to balance out vocal time for two clean vocalists, this is kind of a big deal. Lundberg’s biggest asset to the band as a songwriter was not only in his natural gift for crafting strong AOR hooks that resonated emotionally, but in knowing how to balance the interplay of the three voices in the band. Fortunately for us, Ryd and Morck have seemed to realize this, whether knowingly or just instinctually, as we hear her and Molin’s matching belty vocals work to spectacular effect on the album highlight “Scream My Name”. Notice how both Molin and Ryd duet on the chorus together, their solo vocals during the verses juxtaposed next to growler Henrik Englund Wilhelmsson rather than each other. On the chorus, their similarly belty voices work together in unison to give some added power to the album’s best hook, and it works pretty damn well. The work the same magic on “Viral”, joining together on the chorus for some added punch, even though again the solo Molin second verse does suffer somewhat in the transition. Ryd’s best moment comes on her stellar duet with Battle Beast’s Noora Louhima on “Strong”, a feisty self-empowerment anthem. It’s a strongly written and sung pop hook, by both women, but it’s really demonstrative of Ryd’s range, and her ability to inflect a little grit and toughness into her vocal.
I suspect that as songwriters, Morck and Ryd have decided to implement Wilhelmsson as a vocal foil far more than they utilized him or his predecessor in the past during the Lundberg era. The growling/screaming vocals have increased over the course of Helix and this new album, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence (whether or not they’re crutches is up for debate). Wilhelmsson works best in those aforementioned tight spaces such as a few bars of a verse or a sharp vocal contrast in a bridge such as his interplay with Molin during “Adrenaline”. But his presence gets to be a bit too much on the odd song that is centered around him, as evidenced on the meme-able “BOOM!1” [sic]. Similar to “GG6” from Helix, this is a screaming centric track albeit this time heavy on an aliterative scream-rapped vocal that is kinda impressive in its display of vocal gymnastics, but the Molin sung chorus is just goofy, maybe his worst moment on the album, and the cringe inducing mid-song bridge sequence (“the breakdown goes BOOM!”). Amaranthe seem prone to one of these misteps per album, and its almost becoming a trademark for them to spill over their bad ideas into one outrageous track (though I’ll admit to being wrong about “Breakthrough Starshot”, that track somehow got catchier and more endearing over time). Molin is heard in a far more suitable and powerful context on the power ballad “Crystalline”, a track that is similar in its crescendo building design as Dynazty’s “Hologram” earlier in the year. I’m glad they delivered what is a fairly strong composition here, because the ballad on the last record lacked in everything, and I wondered if Lundberg had took the ballad writing skills with him when he left. It’s not as emotionally resonant as “Amaranthine”, “True”, or “Over and Done” but it is a step in that direction, and I’m rooting for this lineup to keep gelling, and more importantly, keep going.
Draconian – Under A Godless Veil:
Five years have passed since Draconian released Sovran, their first album with vocalist Heike Langhans, and I’d argue in retrospect their most accessible album to date. Its songslanded on a nearly perfect balance of darkened, punishing doom riffs set to not too slowed down tempos, genuinely hook laden songwriting (“Pale Tortured Blue”, “Stellar Tombs”, “Rivers Between Us”, etc), and enough lush, pretty gothic flourishes to balance out its death-doom menace. It was also that point where the band seemed to give more room to the female lead vocals in their songwriting, with co-vocalist/lyricist Anders Jacobsson stepping back just a bit to let Langhans take the lead. It was an interesting distinction from the Lisa Johansson era, where he’d usually get the bulk of the air time if not splitting it directly with Johansson (maybe a little of why I feel Sovran sounded so accessible in comparison). Now, on Under A Godless Veil, the band’s sound is changing ever so slightly again, but certainly enough to be noticeable and definitely enough to provoke a likely differing mix of opinions on it. Moreso than on Sovran, Langhans plays an even more central role here, as the band leans far more towards their gothic, ethereal, and dare I say ambient side. Songs like “The Sacrificial Flame” and “Sleepwalkers” are built on gentle, melancholy drifts and slow, delicate cascades. On the latter, Langhans sings in a tone that is just above a whisper at moments, and its beautiful to hear in the moment, but as you can imagine, you really have to be in the mood for something that deliberately soft, slowed down, and fragile. I made the blunder of listening to this record in the car on my first attempt —- do not make my mistake! I realized it halfway through, switched over to something else, and started over with the album later at night at home on the headphones. That’s the kind of space and mood this album requires (as cliche as that sounds I know), and even then its not a guarantee you’ll be in the mood for it. There are gorgeous moments here, “Night Visitor” is a sad, aching, gothic lament, and I love the yearning expressed in “Claw Marks on the Throne”. That being said, this is an album that often moves at too sombre a tempo for most of its hour plus runtime, and that might be perfect for those very particular moments because it is indeed well executed. But I’d be glossing over the truth if I didn’t say I missed the sonic diversity and tempo changes of Sovran just a bit. You’ll need patience with this record, often a lot of it.
Mors Principium Est – Seven:
Finland’s favorite melo-death traditionalists Mors Principium Est are back with yet another album, this the fourth Andy Gillion album, which is significant because it officially means the band has more releases with the English guitarist than they did with his Finnish predecessors Jori Haukio and Jarkko Kokko. It’s actually a bit weird to still think of him as the new guy in the band (even though we’re all guilty of it), because setting aside the sheer number of releases he’s been an integral part of, next year will mark his decade anniversary in the Mors lineup. These days it’s just Gillion and founding vocalist Ville Viljanen, the band’s longtime drummer Mikko Sipola leaving in 2017 and recently bassist Teemu Heinola leaving after a nineteen year tenure. I suppose its a good sign that Gillion and Viljanen have issued this album despite these challenges, and hopefully they either reload the lineup when touring starts again or just go it with hired guns ala Wolfheart when on the road. If Seven is any indication, the loss of those band members hasn’t impacted the duo’s core creative nucleus at all. This is a classic Mors album through and through —- the tight rhythms, those undeniable Gothenburg melodies delivered via hypnotic lead guitar phrasing, with Viljanen’s pitch perfect grey throated screaming vocals the very ideal of what great melo-death vocals should aspire to. The songwriting here is often downright inspired, as on album standout “Lost In a Starless Aeon”, which might become every melo-death fans 2020 anthem for its downcast, utterly depressing lyrics. It’s energy however is crackling and alive with that perfect mix of aggression, precision instrumentation to create an air of intensity, and a truly transcendent lead melody courtesy of Gillion. Simply put, songs like this are emblematic of the very best aspects of melodeath and a vivid example of why so many of us love the subgenre —- its capable of encompassing so many emotions into one sonic cocktail. Other bangers include “March To War” with its frenetic, hyper-paced riffing and dizzying guitar solo that recalls a touch of heavier power metal ala Blind Guardian. And I’m also impressed by “At the Shores of Silver Sand”, which shows that expansive, epic side of the band’s sound that was more fully explored in the last album (Embers of A Dying World). Mors haven’t done anything radical on Seven overall, these songs are kind of what you’d expect (and demand) from a new record, but that the quality is on par with any of their best work in the past (including Embers which I loved) is something to be happy about.
Mr. Bungle – The Raging Wrath Of The Easter Bunny Demo:
I never expected Mr. Bungle to reunite and release new music, but to be fair, I never expected Faith No More to do that either (or more implausibly, Guns N’ Roses but there you are). I will say that if I was asked to envision what new Mr. Bungle music would sound like, I’d have imagined they’d pick up relatively close to where they left off on 1999’s California, that being a stylistically divergent mish mash of styles all sitting in the same strangeness fondue. That album was my introduction to Mr. Bungle actually, I was a Faith No More fan forever it seemed but had only heard a brief snippet of the first Mr. Bungle album at a friend’s house —- enough to make me think twice about spending my then rare disposable income on something that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d spend a lot of time listening to. Circumstances had changed around the release of California, and I splurged on it one day and was transfixed; tracks like “Pink Cigarette” and “Retrovertigo” and the insane “Goodbye Sober Day” were far more adventurous than anything Patton had done in Faith No More, yet still adjacent enough in sound and approach to be accessible. I went backwards from there, picking up Disco Volante and then finally, their debut that had warded me off years earlier and became a fan of both of them in time. So, when I simultaneously learned that Bungle was back but releasing a re-recording of an old demo I’d never heard, I was elated and a little underwhelmed. Its new music to me certainly, I never bothered to check out the original demo (I did check it out on YouTube prior to hearing this however), but its not new music in the truest sense of the word. It sounds spectacular however on a sonic level, and with Dave Lombardo and Scott Ian on board, its closer to the spirit of the band’s early thrash influences than it could possibly ever be (a lot of this re-recording sounds like a tribute to S.O.D, so much so that there’s even an S.O.D cover here of sorts). I will say I’m surprised at how clean and clinical the guitar tone is, I’d have thought Patton and Trey Spruance would be more comfortable with a messier, fuzzier, more old school tone but I’m guessing they were okay with Ian’s more modern sonic approach guiding the way. Lombardo is Lombardo, brutal and aggressive and as energetic a performance as you’ve come to expect from him, perhaps even more so due to how zany, off-the-walls and unpredictable much of these songs are (its miles away from the rigidity of Slayer let’s put it that way). And of course Patton is clearly having a fantastic time, just screaming like a banshee and at times delivering some of his most extreme (metal) vocals to date. I enjoyed this on a sonic level, I’ve seen more than a few friends call it the thrash metal album of the year and I won’t doubt that (haven’t heard much good thrash this year apart from this really), but I’ll be perfectly honest, I’m looking forward to actual new music from Patton and Spruance, if that even happens.
Spirit Adrift – Enlightened In Eternity:
Spirit Adrift is an interesting story within the realm of relatively new American metal bands —- they were very doom laden on their 2016 debut as well as on it’s follow-up Curse of Conception released only a year later. I will confess to missing last year’s Divided By Darkness, but I went back and revisited it in preparing for Enlightened In Eternity and sure enough, the band’s sound began to shift there into the more uptempo, trad-metal inclined stomp on this new album. I’m sure there are some out there who will bemoan this shift, but I’m all for it, because Spirit Adrift’s approach to a more traditional heavy metal attack is dirty, rugged, almost hard rock steeped in its could be boogie-ish tempos. I thought it was an appropriate tip of the hat to a not so hidden influence when they modeled this new album’s art —- horses running through water, the band’s all of a sudden cursive font logo, and the spaced out lettering of the album title above it —- after Bob Seger’s own Against The Wind. Band founder/guitarist/bassist/vocalist Nate Garrett seems to channel Seger himself in his gruff and rough vocal approach, a roaring, almost bellowing style that is redolently American. I hear that most on his delivery in “Astral Levitation” and “Cosmic Conquest”, two of the more hard rock rooted tracks on the record, the latter seeing Garrett singing with an almost bluesy bent. On the instrumental front, I love the unabashed melodicism happening in “Harmony Of The Spheres”, Garrett’s guitar work here is deft, certain, and richly colorful. Special mention should be made of Marcus Bryant’s drumming, particularly on this song where he veers from an almost swinging hard rock bedrock to a furious, battering assault around the mid three minute mark (my favorite moment on the album). The only time my interest waned in the album was not surprisingly during the first half of the ten minute spanning “Reunited in the Void”, where the band’s old doom metal approach makes a comeback, its just a little too meandering to my ears, however, the abrupt Americana tinged guitar transition at the 6:20 mark is worth waiting for, and redeems the track as a worthy album coda. Glad I didn’t sleep on this record, it’s a wild and cathartic trad metal album with remnants of their older, doomy sonic tendencies and a newer, fresh hard rock injection, a fruitful direction for Garrett to head in.
Enslaved – Utgard:
I almost forgot to review this, which doesn’t bode well for its overall memorability factor I’m guessing —- okay that’s a bit rough to start with, I actually have positives and negatives to discuss here and to be fair it was released in early October and has been surpassed in my listening priority with other records. I will say that Utgard starts out quite strong, and I was taken aback with how striking “Fires In The Dark” was as the album opener. Its rustic acoustic intro is the kind of thing I’ve been longing for more of in Enslaved for the past decade now. It unfolds into a twisting, sinister melody with Grutle’s clean vocal(!) bellowing over a particularly nasty riff tucked in its belly. There are some strong Axioma vibes I enjoyed on “Jettegryta” which is a welcome moment of raw aggression on an album that’s often more muted and reigned in. I’m also big on “Sequence”, a crunchy bit of prog-metal where the band actually gets the balance right between the extreme elements and the bass forward proggy time signature stuff. It ends a bit lopsided however, a mess of disparate elements (and I realize it’s on purpose) that is finally bundled up with a concise reiteration of the chorus with Grutle’s charcoal blackened vocals. I’m not however as wild about the Rush vibes we’re getting on “Urjotun”, though I will concede that it’s certainly something new for the band, and clearly they’re interested in pursuing new frontiers musically. The relatively new in the lineup keyboardist/clean vocalist Håkon Vinje who was all over the band’s last album E is this time joined on clean vocal duties with new drummer Iver Sandøy, and it’s interesting to hear three vocalists within the lineup now. But taking a step back, I find myself just unable to connect on any kind of visceral or emotional level with the band’s music these days, and that’s largely been the case for most of their recent output barring Axioma. Call it old fan (man) syndrome, but maybe my attachment to the band’s mid-2000s era more Viking forward approach is too deeply rooted internally to be swayed towards really loving their new music. This isn’t a bad record by any means, but it’s just… there. I don’t know what to take away from it or what I’m missing. And it’s tough to say that about bands you love (or once loved), because you’re really just beating around the bush, trying to avoid saying what’s often painful to say when a band moves too far in a direction from your interest level (think In Flames, Opeth). I’m not entirely ready to say that about Enslaved just yet, but can see it happening in the future which is saddening.
Black Fate – Ithaca:
When I first started listening to this new album by the unknown to me Greek power metallers Black Fate, I did the expected digging on Metallum and saw a name I recognized in the band’s lineup —- that being vocalist Vasilis Georgiou, and below his name was another band he was in whose name rang a bell with me. I checked my own blog’s archives and sure enough I reviewed Georgiou’s other band Sunburst way back in 2016, noting the Roy Khan-esque quality of his vocal timbre and approach. Because that very quality is the most striking thing that leaps out at you when listening to Ithaca, Georgiou is an uncanny dead-ringer for Khan in a way that not even current Kamelot vocalist Tommy Karevik can emulate whenever he sings the older songs. Now that we have Khan back in Conception, it might seem a bit strange to pine for a voice that’s already delivered new material as late as earlier this year, but what makes Georgiou and Black Fate rather titillating is the band’s smooth, crisp, and intelligently crafted Khan-era Kamelot sound. Call it wearing their influence on their sleeves, or more cynically, appropriating their influence’s entire shtick, but Black Fate nails that classic-era Kamelot vibe more than Youngblood and company do themselves these days. Guitarist Gus Drax (also of Sunburst) lays down thick, sharp-edged beds of rhythmic riffing, punctuated by the odd lead harmony over the top or explosive standalone guitar solo. His role as a standalone guitarist mirrors the Kamelot setup (not to hammer that point home too much), and as a result, his interplay with keyboardist Themis Koparanidis and bassist Vasilis Liakos is crucial in forming the primary metallic thrust of the band’s sound. Georgiou’s vocals are very nearly the entire melodic vehicle on all these songs, serving as the focal point for the motifs throughout as well as any variations happening during the hooks. He’s the central figure on standout songs “Maze” and “Secret Place”, and even when things get a little more hushed as on the post-solo bridge on the title track, its his vocal that guides the way forth through a majestic, emotionally charged moment back towards a thunderous conclusion. This is a relatively simple album, with little variation amongst its tracklisting, but depending on what you’re looking for, that may not be a bad thing. For me, hearing a voice that I love for purely aesthetic reasons in a sound profile that I adore is all I really need from Black Fate. The drawback here is a lack of memorability in the songwriting —- everything here sounds great in the moment, but I’m left without a lingering memory of a particular melody or moment that will stick in my mind long after listening. I suppose that’s the difference between (very) good and great.
Countless Skies – Glow:
Every year we seem to get an album that appears out of nowhere that manages to push everything else out of our listening rotation so we can play it on repeat for a few days straight. That’s the case with the new album Glow from UK melodeath outfit Countless Skies, who are a late entry this year (this album was just released on the 4th of November) but should not escape your attention before the year’s end! First off, kudos on delivering the most beautiful cover art I’ve seen all year —- the singular distant silhouette standing against a glorious horizon seems to be a theme for their entire discography, but when you listen to this album it’s fair to call it a mood. That cinematic touch is injected into the band’s music, with their channeling of influences like Insomnium’s sweeping, majestic epic melodies and Omnium’s more clinical, precision aggression. Their band name is actually nabbed from a song on Aussie melodeathers Be’lakor’s Stone’s Reach album, and yeah I can hear strains of that band coming through, particularly on the dense, aggressive passages in “Summit”. But Countless Skies real strength I believe is in their ability to create natural sounding segues to contrasting moments of lush, thoughtful quietude. This is a band that utilizes space and silence as aggressively as other bands use blastbeats, and they manage to weave them into their songwriting so they’re not just abrupt transitions that leave you wondering if your network connection is dropping out. And it’s the gorgeously melancholy nature of those moments that match the sun breaking through the clouds vision of that cover art that keep me coming back —- paired with fluid lead guitars and clean vocalist Phil Romeo’s (also on bass) impassioned, soaring vocals. He’s a revelation on album standouts “Tempest” and “Glow – Part 2: Awakening”, the latter of which is my personal favorite moment on an album brimming over with them. There’s a brightness to these songs that differs from the more darkly melancholic work of the band’s influences, I hear it not only in those aforementioned quiet moments, but in the guitar tones and melodies. It reminds me of the Thormesis album from last year, that sharp contrast in tonal opposites while not sounding like the overprocessed “post-” bands that I so often associate extreme shifts in loud/quiet dynamics with. Highly recommended everyone gives this a listen, it’s one of the most captivating things I’ve heard all year.
Eshtadur – From The Abyss:
I believe we played and discussed this a few weeks back on a recent MSRcast, but recently I’ve come back to this album to spend more time with it because it really is one of the most intriguing and unique releases of 2020. Eshtadur are a Columbian(!) melodic death metal band whose sound is far more expansive than that limiting genre tag can do justice. There’s elements of symphonic black metal coating the songwriting here, as well as Hollywood film score pomp and grandeur, but my favorite aspect is their unabashed love of pop and hard rock inspired hooks. Take the lead guitar hook tucked away in the “The Red Door”, a wild GnR-ish motif that is a striking contrast to the tight, precision melo-death riffage surrounding it. We hear examples of those disparate elements all over the album, from the awesome solo spiraling upwards over blastbeats in “The Fall” to the ominous horns piercing the darkness of “She the Void”. Guitarist/vocalist Jorg August is the central figure in the band, and his riffing is as dense as Rotting Christ and Septic Flesh, but he has a sense of melody that permeates nearly everything he’s crafted here. There’s also a cinematic vision to the way he’s thought out certain things, for instance that guitar solo in the aforementioned “She the Void”, it might start out in a typical hard rock approach, but it ends in a completely unexpected moment of anguished phrasing that sounds like introduction of some Cthulu like creature (maybe that cover art is influencing me!). I was also struck by the Firehouse cover of “All She Wrote” that’s dropped in the middle of the tracklisting with Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati on guest lead vocals. Its a strange, bewildering cover to be tucked at the very middle of such a brutal, ferocious album, but its a joy to behold because of its sheer boldness as a sugary, poppy contrast. What I love is that despite such an out of place feeling to the idea of a Firehouse song being covered at all here, is that it actually puts the hookiness of the album’s original material into sharp focus. This is one of those albums you owe it to yourself to hear, particularly if you like intermixing of genres and influences in your extreme metal.
The bounty of spring indeed, because this month I’ve found myself going through at least eight new releases, a few of which aren’t listed in the reviews below but might be up later sometime. Some of these are also late February releases that I had overlooked that month or simply thought were coming out in March (or more accurately, I didn’t get around to listening to until recently). There’s a lot to get to and I’ve tried to keep things short and concise for you and me both, so we’ll apply that to this preamble too. Begin!
Wolfheart – Tyhjyys:
On the latest episode of the MSRcast, listen to my cohost Cary and I collectively slap our foreheads in bafflement at not knowing that Wolfheart was the newest project from Tuomas Saukkonen. I did have vague stirrings that I had remembered the band name somewhere, but laziness compelled me not to do a simple Google search on it (or I got distracted by Twitter, both likely culprits). Saukkonen is the restless spirit behind Black Sun Aeon (an MSRcast favorite), Before the Dawn, Dawn of Solace, and the short lived RoutaSielu melo-death project. He’s the Chris Black type (he of High Spirits, Dawnbringer, and Pharaoh fame), the kind of musician who operates under a project/band name until he feels its run its course, upon which he creates a new moniker, and begins to record under that for however long he feels its inspiration. These projects have been different enough musically to warrant such divisions, though they are almost always cooked up in a Finnish broth of blackened doom along with melodic death metal structures. Whereas Black Sun Aeon was a very Finnish extreme take on gothic metal, Saukkonen leans in an altogether new direction here, more towards the progressive simplicity of latter day Enslaved. Its a natural fit because one of his trademarks is his clever and engaging use of minimalism as a guide in his songwriting, allowing for the usage of empty space to create tension and to amplify heavier passages.
Case in point is the single “The Flood”, an acoustic led epic that recalls mid-period Opeth for its delicate patterns and understated minor key melodicism. I love a track that’s so confident in its overall strength that it allows for moments of sparsely adorned quietude where the drums are the dominating instrument, helped by Joonas Kauppinen’s jazz-inflected fills (check 2:04 – 2:26). That aforementioned Enslaved influence can’t help but be heard on a cut like “Boneyard”, whose main riff is a mish-mash of tremolo picking and modern day prog-metal, book ending a chorus that’s elevated by a bed of forceful keyboard atmospherics. Wolfheart’s keyboard usage is multi-faceted, not only serving as quasi-orchestral arrangements at times, but as purposefully artificial in tone as on “The Rift”, to conjure up a complementary melody to the rhythm guitar riff that brings to mind Omnium Gatherum and Insomnium (not bad touchstones to have). Unlike those fellow Finnish artists however, who occasionally swim in tones that can be described as warm, or summery (as in the honeyed melodies of One For Sorrow), Wolfheart choose to work with decidedly wintry sounds. That’s not a bad thing because they have the songwriting chops to keep it interesting, but for folks who can’t handle an overload of that stuff, it could act as a stumbling block. That being said there’s not a weak track on this album, and with only seven songs (excluding one rather well written instrumental intro) they could hardly afford one.
The Takeaway: Modern day Enslaved meets Blackwater era Opeth while being bear hugged by Metallica-esque accessibility. Worth a shot for extreme metal neophytes and old hands alike.
Evocation – The Shadow Archetype:
Evocation aren’t exactly the most known name in death metal, despite existing in some spirit or another since 1991(!). There were demos and more demos in those early days, then a sudden implosion that halted any activity for years upon years. This halt in momentum prevented their ascent to the region defining status of their fellow Swedish death metal peers in Entombed, Dismember, Grave, and Unleashed. They eventually returned in 2007 with their long overdue debut album Tales From the Tomb, and went on to release three more between then and 2012. They were largely built upon that expected SDM template of buzzsaw guitars and dirty riffs, albeit with hellish vocals caught between a melo-death scream and something far more guttural. Eschewing any guest appearance by the cookie monster, Evocation presented a far more accessible take on this style of death metal, something later co-opted by Grave on their excellent Endless Procession of Souls. But its been five years since then, and while that gap of time might have frustrated anyone who felt like the band was a bit on a roll, those were four relatively uneven albums, with 2010’s Apocalypse being the only one I ever go back to. So I’m happy to report that the break has been beneficial for Evocation, with The Shadow Archetype easily being the best, most confident album of their career. If there’s any justice in the metal world, everyone will recognize this and perhaps even those in the non-metal worlds will give it the Gorguts Colored Sands treatment.
This is an addictive, refreshingly simple and direct re-imagining of the Evocation sound, a distillation of the band’s strengths into a cohesive, brutally effective death metal tonic. The sonics here are deep, raw, and dirty yet recorded with unbelievably wide dynamic range and instrument separation —- take the opener “Condemned to the Grave”, where ominous lead guitar motifs cleanly glide over riffs that hit you with the force of a monster truck smashing over junkyard cars. If you’re getting hints of At the Gates and The Haunted at moments, such as on “Modus Operandi”, you’re not hearing things. I suspect that the band deliberately kept reinforced the Gothenburg influence they’d picked up through the years and use it as a way to explore further melodicism within their traditionally straight ahead Swedish death metal approach (“Survival of the Sickest” being a prime example of the latter). This helps to explain the acoustic instrumental “Blind Obedience“, the most Gothenburg/Jesper Stromblad-ian thing they’ve ever attempted. I can’t pick a favorite track here, because this is a flawless album from start to finish, but I’ll give a special nod to “Children of Stone” for its mix of complex songwriting and structure held in check by ferocious guitar riffs that practically slam their way into action during transitions from verse to chorus and back again. What a song, what an album.
The Takeaway: A must listen to for 2017, one of the early contenders for the album of the year list.
Immolation – Atonement:
Immolation have always been a unique specimen among modern American death metal bands, and to be more precise, from their hometown New York death metal scene at that. They certainly don’t sound like any of the NYDM bands I’ve heard, especially not the ones approved by those few dudes at local death metal shows around Houston and Texas in general sporting those silly NYDM brotherhood patches on their ripped jean jacket vests. I’ve idly wondered if those guys would consider Immolation false metal based on how far they stick out from other bands from the region (transcended more like), but never had a real inclination to strike up a conversation with any of them. Probably for the better. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed Immolation on the blog before because I didn’t actually pen a review for 2013’s Kingdom of Conspiracy, feeling a little blah about that album in general (I’ll be revisiting it soon to see if that’s changed); but I was a huge fan of their 2010 masterpiece, Majesty and Decay. That’s in my top five death metal albums of all time, an astonishing album of brutal death metal that was more oppressive in spirit than in overwhelming walls of sound, a key to its success. It would always be a difficult benchmark to top, and I wonder if that’s something that was on the band’s collective conscience this time around, four years after Kingdom of Conspiracy.
On Atonement, the first thing I noticed before playing the album was the cover art, purposefully more colorful and vivid than their past three releases (including the 2011 Scion A/V presents Providence EP), as well as the reintroduction of their old school logo. I went in expecting some reversion to an older school sound, bracing to hear evidence of the band I once enjoyed purposefully packed away from sight and sound. That turns out to not be the case, and I’m at a loss to explain the cosmetic changes surrounding the album because Atonement is still Immolation fully engaged in their modern mode. That is, death metal written with intelligence, thought, and attention to detail. There’s still an oppressive atmosphere pervading everything, but the instrumentation is still clearly defined, with space and breathing room allowed for everything even during the most intense and hectic passages. A true highlight here is “The Power of Gods”, which features a cleverly written ascending scale pattern that both serves as a hook and a motif at the same time. Equally impressive is the title track, with its deft intro riff pattern repeated throughout as a moving anchor tethering strains of furious, roiling chaotic noise in all directions. There’s musical curiosities as well, such as the bizarre guitar figures that adorn “Thrown to the Fire”, almost treading into non-sludgy sludge-doom territory (if that makes any sense!). Vocalist Ross Dolan is on fine form throughout, but he always is, an ageless wonder in the world of brutal death metal, of particular note is his menacing energy on “When the Jackals Come”, delivering its eponymous lyrics with enough clarity so there’s no mistaking his meaning. Yikes.
The Takeaway: A return to form, if not a confusing way to go about it. No its not as awesome as Majesty and Decay, but few albums are… if you’re new to the band, I highly recommend starting there and then moving to this.
Bloodbound – War of Dragons:
I’ve never been able to get my head around Bloodbound, mostly because they can’t seem to do the same themselves, so thoroughly schizophrenic have they been over the course of their career. So here’s where I have to use caution, because I do love that a band like Bloodbound exists because its 2017 and we need all the new blood (no pun!) we can get to keep this beloved subgenre going. But good grief, they’ve really taken a turn for the worse here and have succumbed to a rather disheartening recent trend within power metal to amplify the style’s most egregious tendencies to the max. I’m thinking about those purposefully silly bands like Gloryhammer and Twilight Force, because there’s no way songs titled “Tears of a Dragonheart” and “Dragons are Forever” can be excused as anything else. I’m not anti-dragon, but that’s just goddamned silly (edit – this might be the most ridiculous sentence I’ve ever written). Are you kidding me with this stuff Bloodbound? I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised, because as alluded to above, these guys have been all over the place stylistically and thematically since their debut album. Yet the lineup on War of Dragons is still three-fifths of the band that recorded the truly inspired Tabula Rasa…so what happened?
Well line-up changes happened first of all, with the 2010 exit of vocalist Urban Breed bringing in current vocalist Patrik Selleby. Lost in that transition was not only Breed’s rather unique aggressive mid-range vocal approach, but his innate talent as a songwriter, writing his own lyrics and vocal melodies during his time in Tad Morose and bringing that talent to his two Bloodbound albums as well. Selleby is a far more conventional power metal voice, a good one at that with an impressive upper register, but he’s far more dependent on predictable power metal vocal patterns. Its hard to figure out if he’s the reason for the band’s increasingly simplified songwriting formula over the course of these past three albums but I’d equally point the finger at Bloodbounds three remaining original members. As a forgiving power metal fan, I can’t shake the feeling that these guys are looking for a straight shot to the most accessibility the subgenre can provide, and that means following whatever route that currently seems to be working for others. Only that can explain the increase in Gloryhammer-esque hamminess that characterizes War of Dragons on a lyrical level, and also the co-opting of Sabaton styled keyboard lines that mirror the vocal melody. That works for Sabaton because its part of their organic, original sound —- and the hamminess works for Gloryhammer because of their overall package. Bloodbound has no identity of their own anymore, and maybe the loss of Breed’s signature lyrical depth and intelligent vocal melody design on Tabulsa Rasa suggests they never did.
The Takeaway: The McDonalds of power metal then.
Mors Principium Est – Embers of a Dying World:
The lesser noticed little brother of Finnish melodic death metal (relative to Insomnium and Omnium Gatherum that is), Mors Principium Est are now on album number six, which is not remarkable in its own right except to suggest that they’ve had plenty of time to direct their sound in a more focused, organic direction. That actually is the feeling I’ve gotten from Embers of a Dying World, that the band is still in love with the Gothenburg template (nothing inherently wrong with that), but has this time around stumbled upon a way to incorporate more of a Finnish approach to their melo-death. That doesn’t mean they’re copying their brothers, but this is the most noticeably different sounding album in their discography, owing to Gothic-tinged keyboard arrangements, mournful melodies set to slower tempos in places, as well as the surprising inclusion of an actual ballad here in “Death Is The Beginning”. Its a bold experiment, one that I’m surprised they haven’t tried earlier, and here they include female vocals for the first time that I can remember, and it works really well. Check out “The Drowning” for a vivid example of just how much the band is stretching into unfamiliar territory —- a slightly below mid-tempo synth groove with Queensryche meets melo-death lead guitar drapery with playfully subtle tempo accelerations in the glide-in and out of its addictive chorus. This isn’t the Mors we once knew, yet they still sound like themselves, a challenge for any band to achieve.
This expansion of their palette I believe is a direct result of guitarist Andy Gillion’s gradually increasing songwriting influence since he joined up in 2011. His first two albums with the band displayed flashes of this transforming influence, but here he fully blossoms, and it seems that longtime vocalist Ville Viljanen and bassist Teemu Heinola are happy to let him take most of the songwriting reins. Its an odd quirk that its taken a British guitarist to coax out more of a Finnish sound from Mors, but Gillion brings a brashness, a boldness that the band has needed both musically and personality wise. Case in point, check out his tour diary for the band’s stay on this year’s 70000 Tons cruise; he’s an outgoing, upbeat, and playful personality. This is all just idle speculation, but he seems to have loosened up the band in general, and I can hear this affect Viljanen on Embers more than anyone, his performances here are the best of his career. He’s been one of the best melo-death voices for a long time, possessing that perfect condensed scream-growl vocal, but on new songs like “Apprentice of Death” and “Into the Dark”, he tries new approaches, invoking more of a blackened Satyr vibe. Its a subtle change, but it suits him and helps those two songs breathe. The whole band is breathing easier on Embers in fact, this is one of the nicer surprises this year.
The Takeaway: This may be up for vicious debate, but this is certainly my favorite Mors Principium Est album, so full of unexpected twists and turns yet not sounding like they’ve transformed into anyone else.