The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2018 // Part Two: The Albums

This was undoubtedly the most difficult to narrow down year-end albums list I’ve ever had to put together. It involved whittling down a sizable nominee pool to the final ten, the last spot of which I must’ve switched out well over a dozen times, constantly rethinking myself out of making a final decision. As I’ve always done, I prefer to only list and discuss what I think were the ten best songs and albums in these lists, not my top 25 or 50 or more that some other sites do. I think sticking to a tight ten forces you to really think about what you listened to the most over the year, and more importantly what really blew you away instead of merely satisfied you. Albums that I really enjoyed at various points throughout the year aren’t here, not because they’ve fallen out of favor, but simply because there were other amazing releases crowding the field. It was a great year to be a metal fan. Let me know in the comments below if you agreed or disagreed with this list! 

1.   Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs:

In a year packed full of remarkable new albums by newcomers and veterans alike, a few of which would’ve been able to top a year-end list at any other time, Orphaned Land’s conceptual Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs towered above them all —- and it wasn’t ever close. After I penned my original glowing review of the album, I wondered if its extremely early release date (January 26th) would’ve eroded my enthusiasm for it as the year wore on. Whenever that question would pop up at random times many months later, I’d give the album a spin and would have those doubts immediately erased. I even gave myself a wide berth from the band after seeing them live for the first time ever in Austin at a spellbinding show on their May tour with Týr and Aeternam, thinking that the intoxication surrounding that experience (and repeated listening thru their entire catalog) would’ve clouded my judgment. Yet even after that level of precaution; when I sit here now in December and consider everything I’ve listened to over the year, and think about the nine other records that made the cut out of the nominee pool, I can honestly say that I’ve never been as confident as I am right now about declaring that this is the unquestionable album of the year.

Here Orphaned Land leans harder than ever before into the incorporation of Middle-Eastern folk melodies and instrumentation, infusing it in every song, weaving it not only through moments of delicate beauty but around their most pummeling, aggression laden riffs. The result is their most perfect, most fully realized recording to date, a flawless fusion of those two disparate worlds of sound. The songs are wildly diverse in style, tempo, and structure, the melodies lush and vibrant, and Kobi Farhi turns in the most inspired vocal melodies and performances of his career. He also delivers some of his angriest lyrics ever, but smartly channels everything through the compelling concept of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, giving narrative shape and structure to what is ostensibly an anguished protest album. The co-MVPs here might be guitarists Chen Balbus and new guy Idan Amsalem; who together not only erase any worries over the departure of founding guitarist Yossi Sassi, but put their stamp all over this album, unleashing waves of creative guitar and expressive bouzouki. The band also wisely chose to carry over from All Is One the use of an extensive supporting ensemble of choir singers, Middle Eastern percussionists and string players. It sounds like a lot. It sounds like it could be a mess in the wrong hands, but Orphaned Land has this music in their DNA. Their greatest strength is in knowing how to write songs that incorporate Middle Eastern folk melody as an integral, structural foundation of their music as opposed to mere window dressing. 

2.   Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

It’s not the time nor place to go into it here, but when I do eventually attempt to make my case in writing that we’re in the midst of a truly inspired global power metal resurgence in these past couple years, albums like Visigoth’s Conqueror’s Oath will be part of the bedrock on which I build my argument. Part of why I’ve found myself paying far more attention to newer power metal bands coming out of the States and Canada is their tendency to unabashedly wrap their arms around the genre’s traditions and tropes both, almost reveling in their over the top nature and yearning for epic storytelling (such as last year’s album of the year Apex by Unleash the Archers). Visigoth simplified their approach for their sophomore record, leaning harder in the Manilla Road / Manowar / Virgin Steele direction, and the result is the most outwardly joyful record of the year. It was also my most played album throughout the year, just perma-lodging itself in my playlist for those daily commutes to work, the long drive to the other side of Houston for gigs, and on the old headphones while ambling through the grocery store. Songs like “Warrior Queen” are full of inventive twists amidst the trad-and-true, glory claw raising thunder, and “Blades In The Night” is the kind of perfect, anthemic magic you wish more power metal bands could manage to achieve. You know an album is awesome when it makes waiting for your oil change to finish a pleasure.

3.   Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:

I’m prepared now to expect the unexpected with Thrawsunblat, who chose to follow up 2016’s year end list making Metachthonia with this all acoustic album, the decision itself being somewhat eyebrow raising. That it wasn’t an album full of maritime balladry ala “Maritime Shores”/”Goose River” from their first album was perhaps the bigger surprise, because guitarist-vocalist Joel Violette seemed to be a natural at that style. Instead he and drummer Rae Amitay (also of Immortal Bird fame) worked up songs that were strikingly aggressive, uptempo, and energetic yet still woodsy, rustic, and incense smoke scented. Things veer from the lush prettiness of the title track to the anthemic spirituality of song of the year listee “Via Canadensis” to the violent, furious roil of “Thus Spoke The Wind”, where Violette and Amitay employ tremolo riffing and blastbeat accented percussion —- on acoustic instruments remember! This was a clever, inspired re-imagining of what folk metal could be, an expansion of the very definition of the genre. More than that however, it was a personal sounding album that echoed with strains of the northeastern Canadian folk music that inspired it.

4.   Therion – Beloved Antichrist:

For many, Therion’s massive, three-disc spanning opera (like, an actual opera!) Beloved Antichrist was an immediate write off. I’m almost positive that the majority of folks who managed to take the step of listening through its entirety the one time never went back to it, and most never got past hearing a single track on YouTube or Spotify, and hey, I get it. As I remarked in my massively deep diving review for this project back in February, few Therion fans were happy about the band taking a half decade plus leave of absence for this project. Understandably, they might’ve been a tad less forgiving than usual when initially hearing the thing, and at first I wasn’t either —- that is until I switched my mindset to okay, I’m listening to the soundtrack to a stage performance, not a metal album mode that I was finally able to begin appreciating what Therion had achieved here. There are a heap of musical treasures within this thing, moments I came back to throughout the year repeatedly (“To Shine Forever” landed on the best songs list). I do think one’s enjoyment of it hinges on whether you can appreciate not just classical music, but opera as a musical form itself. I had to check myself and make sure my Therion fanboy wasn’t showing in putting this so high on this list, but sure enough, it was one of my most played through albums this year according to iTunes playcounts. I’d put it on in the background night after night when working on other things, but sometimes I’d sit and really focus on the lyrics, and I got to know the plot pretty well and had fun with it. Its a gargantuan achievement in its own right, something that was labored over for years by a composer who had already proven himself to be a wizard at marrying metal and classical music. If anything, Therion’s pedigree should warrant your giving it a second chance.


5.   Hoth – Astral Necromancy:

This was truly one of the year’s out of left field, standout surprises. I’d never heard of Hoth before (the band, not the planet…), but they completely captured my attention with this compulsively listenable opus of intricate, shifting, and downright unpredictable melodic black metal. Hoth’s music is a contradiction; it’s icy in tone befitting the band’s name, as bleakly cold and unforgiving as you would want a two person black metal band to sound. Yet these songs are loaded with major chord sequences that jet out of nowhere with an almost power metal-ish joyfulness. You hear a nice cross-section of all those traits on “The Living Dreams of a Dead God” where seemingly triumphant, Blind Guardian-esque major key guitars inform the lead melodies over the top of that deathly cold tremolo riff underneath. Vocalist/lyricist Eric Peters has the perfect tone for these songs, withering and fell, like an actual necromancer’s voice careening down a snowy, windswept mountainside to chill your very heart. But again, no matter how awesome the black metal aspects are, what really grabs me are these perfectly written power metal soaked melodic counterweights, to add splashes of sharp colors to what is ostensibly a gray affair. You might be wondering why I’m so taken aback by the addition of melody to extreme metal, not exactly a new or fresh concept to be sure, but just give my enthusiasm the benefit of the doubt and listen to this record. Its likely that its very much unlike anything you’ve heard before.

6.   Elvenstorm – The Conjuring:

Storming out of the apparently secret power metal stronghold of Grenoble, France(?!), Elvenstorm sailed under many radars way back in July when they released the most vicious, devastatingly aggressive album of thrashy, speedy power metal this year. If you only hear the intro melody and first riff sequence on album opener “Bloodlust”, you’ll probably think these guys are from Germany, so indebted to Kreator and early 90s speed metal tinged Blind Guardian is their rocketing guitar attack. But then you’ll hear vocalist Laura Ferreux swoop in, with her wild, almost punk edged melodic vocal and that français accent echoing off canyon walls. She’s likely to be a make or break proposition for many, her vocals often unnerving raw, but I think she’s one of the strengths of this record, her careening voice matching the intensity of Michael Hellström’s explosive riffing. Like Visigoth with Conqueror’s Oath, there’s an infectious enthusiasm here for old school metal, that bullet belt attitude and defiant strut. What makes Elvenstorm stand apart from anyone else is their straight-faced manner of going about it, something one could almost think of as charming. There’s a passion and intensity ripping through these expertly crafted songs —- that they hit me with something resembling the force of a hurricane is why The Conjuring is on this list.

7.   Exlibris – Innertia:

Soaring out of Warsaw as if in protest of all the attention we’re lavishing onto the great power metal pouring out of Canada and the States lately, Poland’s Exlibris dropped the best Euro-power album of the year in Innertia. This was my introduction to the band, and it turns out to be perhaps the best possible point of entry as its the debut of new singer Riku Turunen, the absolute tour de force of this album. Call him the Patrick Mahomes of power metal in 2018, but I haven’t been this bowled over by a new vocal talent in the scene in ages. His voice has the pure raw power of Mandrake-era Tobias Sammet with the distinctive pronounciation inflections of Timo Kotipelto. You might have already read about best song listee “Shoot For the Sun”, where he proves himself as a leading man in an ever soaring duet, but check out his jaw dropping range in “Incarnate” or his command of theatrics in “No Shelter”. Beyond amazing vocal performances, these are simply expertly crafted songs, structured around earwormy hooks yet loaded with progressive metal twists and turns. Daniel Lechmański’s guitars sound meaty ala Tad Morose or Brainstorm, and his riffs and chord progressions are all intriguing in their balance of straight ahead rockin’ and rich complexity. Speaking of balance, his having to bounce off of keyboardist Piotr Sikora instead of another guitarist seems to be a source of fruitful inspiration between the two. There’s a push and pull going on between each of their lead melody lines that refuses to sit quietly in Turunen’s immense shadow. 

8.   Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods:

I really didn’t think Demonaz and Horgh could pull it off, rather naively thinking that an Abbath-less Immortal record was more likely to be a disaster than anything close to a success. And in my defense, what reasonable Immortal fan could think that Abbath’s departure would somehow make a new Immortal album better? It seems illogical on the face of it. But sometimes weird things happen, and there’s nothing weirder in 2018 than Immortal Mach 2 turning in the band’s best album since Sons of Northern Darkness, and maybe even a top three Immortal album overall. This is just a relentless, tireless rush of old school second wave black metal reminiscent of the band’s first four albums but tempered with the riff density and cold, crisp production of the post At the Heart of Winter era. Demonaz’ ice demon approach on vocals is pitch perfect for this blend of Immortal, grim and fierce but with a lengthy drawn out utterance that’s coupled with a surprising degree of enunciation, unlike Abbath’s bizarre frog gargoyle barking approach. The nine minute epic “Mighty Ravendark” barely missed out on making the best songs of the year list; its about as perfect an Immortal song as I can imagine, with an epic buildup and satisfying (dare I say hooky?) refrain built on clever vocal phrasing. I really can’t think of any time in recent memory when a band has lost a key member and somehow thrived as a result… I’d have to go back to what, Metallica perhaps? Iron Maiden after Dianno? Call it a comeback, maybe even the greatest comeback.

9.   Judicator – The Last Emperor:

Yet another in an increasingly longer line of excellent releases from North American power metal bands, The Last Emperor was my introduction to Arizona’s Judicator. As it turns out, it was the perfect introduction too, being their most early 90s Blind Guardian era inspired work, including a guest appearance by the bard Mr. Hansi Kursch himself. A lot has been written about this very apparent influence, and its hard to ignore for sure, but there’s so much more going on here than mere hero worship. Guitarist Tony Cordisco aimed to write songs that were not only tight and concise, but purposefully and methodically energetic throughout. There are no ballads here, although brief dips into acoustic territory help to spice up the intros or bridges of certain songs to keep things varied. Its intriguing to hear an American power metal band so infatuated with the traditional European interpretation of the style. I can hear jagged edges at the corners of Judicator’s sound, little things like the sharp teeth on that straight ahead attacking riff sequence in “Raining Gold”, or the early Iced Earth influence that comes through in vocalist John Yelland’s aggro counterpoint to Hansi in “Spiritual Treason”. Judicator also seems to be filling a sonic space in power metal that was long ago left vacant by the Blind Guardians and Helloweens and Edguys of the world, one I had long ago hoped would be filled by the now sadly quieted Persuader and Savage Circus. I don’t mind if my power metal bias is showing here, because Judicator is assuming the mantle of this specific style in the here and now as a recently formed power metal band delivering an amazing new album this year. This is the stuff that will keep the genre going strong into the future. Consider me grateful.

10.   Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:

This one might raise a few eyebrows, but I just could not deny how much I listened to Eonian throughout the year. It was an album that I would listen to when in the mood for something fierce and biting, but also when I wanted something orchestral and epic, as well as melodic and complex. I consider myself a Dimmu fan, but I had been critical of them throughout the years, not completely enjoying an album since 2001’s Puritanical Euphoric Misanthropia. Not only was this the first time since then I could say that I loved a new Dimmu album from front to back, but its honestly up there right next to Enthrone Darkness Triumphant as my second favorite of all their albums. The inspired songwriting in “I Am Sovereign” reminds me of that legendary album’s sense of playfulness with black metal song structures; here with an inversion of blazing riffing in the chorus instead of the verses, with regal string punctuations that would sound at home in a Carach Angren song. The band took care to increase the distinctiveness of their major sonic elements this time around, instead of the usual symphonic black metal mash up they had been doing. On Eonian, the black metal parts sound more black metal than ever, and the orchestral parts lean just as hard into their majestic symphonic grandeur. Its a subtle distinction that allowed them to sharpen their songwriting, to shape these songs with muscular force and gorgeous expressiveness. Its a shame that just like Cradle of Filth with their truly excellent past two albums, Dimmu seems to be getting glossed over this year as having released more of the same. Those are lazy opinions from people who haven’t listened close enough. This is a career rejuvenating work from one of the genre’s most creative artists.

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.

The 2017 Journal: July+August Hurricane Edition

mpavatWell, I’m alive. For those of you who don’t follow me on Twitter and hadn’t seen an update on this blog in over a month, that might be news to you —- particularly if you remembered that I live in Houston (well, just outside southwest Houston). I was already behind on reviews and of course this “monthly” 2017 journal, but Hurricane Harvey knocked me sideways for a good two and a half weeks. It was a cocktail of stressing out about prepping for the hurricane (which is expensive as hell and oh so exhausting), enduring the hurricane for days cooped up inside, waiting for my internet and power to go out (miraculously they never did), stressing (did I mention stressing?!) on maximum overload about whether or not the waters would reach my car (they never did), whether or not the damn lake I live right next to (an alligator preserve no less) would spill over into my living room, and oh yeah wondering if my parents house mere miles away from the soon to be overflowing Brazos River would be 5-10 feet underwater (the waters made it to the very edge of their neighborhood… literally the actual edge). Just north of me, my friend’s car flooded, neighborhoods experienced street flooding, and a couple miles further north, the straining Barker reservoir threatened to engulf nearly all of southwest Houston with a biblical flood.

 

I’ve lived in H-town since 1986. I’ve dealt with hurricanes, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, and lengthy power outages before. You get used to it when you’ve been down here for so long. But I’ve never been as stressed out as I was during the three to four days that Harvey was standing over us like a guy at a Texans game during halftime over the urinal, pissing rain down in a torrent that defined the very term. I had to take some extra days to recover, let alone begin listening to music again. I had left off in the middle of an already behind schedule review for To The Bone by Steven Wilson, which I’ve just now published oh so late to the party. But when I thought about perhaps recalling my own Harvey story for the August journal entry, I immediately felt pangs of the same stress I felt the other week when I was experiencing the storm. So for the continued betterment of my mental and physiological health, I’m going to elect to spare both you and I. Suffice to say it was awful, but I’m one of the lucky ones, fortunate enough to be in a specific area of Houston and its outer limits where I was spared the utter destruction and uprooting that many people in this stout, hardy city are having to endure right now. Friends I know had to evacuate with water in their homes, and here I was with nary an internet outage to contend with, only stir-craziness and anxiety.

 

In an effort to get back to normalcy, this August entry (written now in early September) is simply going to be a collection of quick takes covering a few of the albums I listened to but missed covering in actual reviews over the summer. Many of these I might have mentioned on the MSRcast at some point but certainly not all of them. The following July entry was something I wrote within that month and while its entirely random, blog-related brainstorming, I’m looking forward to implementing some of those ideas into action before the year’s end. It can only get better from here right? Onward and upward.

 


AUGUST

 

Anathema – The Optimist:

In what might register as one of the most pondered over albums in The Metal Pigeon’s six year history, I still have no freaking idea what to make of Anathema’s fourth post-metal album. Its not for lack of trying either, because I have spent a considerable amount of time on this hoping it would jump out of its densely packed soundscapes. Unlike recent offerings Distant Satellites, Weather Systems, and We’re Here Because We’re Here with their satisfying mix of beautiful dream pop amidst their transcendent progressive tracks —- The Optimist offers very little in the way of easy listening pleasures, and certainly no pop of any kind to counterbalance the overall gloomy, darkened, and often somber tone of this album. But that doesn’t mean its not interesting, or worth listening to, and it keeps compelling me back for more. But if you’d ask me to name a highlight? Well… I don’t really know. Maybe “Springfield” for its slightly Fear of a Blank Planet era Porcupine Tree vibe, its got a hypnotic, almost trip-hop keyboard/drum rhythmic element going on, paired with a ringing, airy lead guitar figure that is beautifully dark and evocative. Its the track I’ve listened to the most individually anyway, for what its worth.

 

I have a suspicion as to what is, lets see… what’s an apt term here… dampening(?) the impact of this album. Everything is largely written in varying shades of minor keys (or minor scale? Someone tell me if I’m wrong in my terminology, I’d like to get that right at least —- already found out I was using the term “syncopation” wrong which is totally on me). If you’ve heard any of those aforementioned past couple Anathema albums, you’ll understand what I’m trying to illustrate here. I miss the bright, shiny, epic, gorgeous moments that those albums had in spades, largely with songs that juxtaposed big, shimmering major key refrains, bridges, solo verses against largely minor key song structures. It was the figurative light house cutting through the fog, the break in the rain to let the sun shine through —- The Optimist is desperately in need of a few of those across this album. We get half of one, towards the middle of the final track “Back to the Start”, with a simultaneous lead guitar and majestic string arrangement duet, as co-vocalist Lee Douglas gets to deliver her best moment on an album where she’s woefully underutilized. I’m curious as to what you guys think of this album, because I can’t tell if its just my own personal apathy or if this is something that most folks are feeling. Let me know!

 

 

Unleash the Archers – Apex:

I should be properly ashamed that I haven’t written about this magnificent album yet. Partly because if some of you haven’t actually checked it out yourselves yet, then I’ve done you a disservice by allowing you to go through the summer without this rockin’ beast. Mostly though, its because I’ve been playing this thing on heavy rotation throughout these past few months after first hearing it in late June. They’ve been a name I’ve heard for awhile now, but never actually managed to give them their proper due and chalked them up in my mind to being a metalcore band with a better than most name with some epic tendencies. The latter detail because often times I’d see their name thrown around as an example of modern traditional metal done right. Stupid me, I really should take greater heed of those kinds of praise when I first hear them and not years later when I finally get a promo sent to me. But as I always say, the cream rises to the top, and while I can’t contextualize how good Apex is compared to the rest of their discography, its an album that should be turning heads.

 

Its wild, rollicking, thunderous bangers like “The Matriarch” and “Shadow Guide” that will have you shake your head approvingly and exclaim, “Hey… these guys rock!” But its deeper, more complex cuts such as “Cleanse the Bloodline” that will have you regarding the band with a far more elevated perspective. Far more than just delivering a new take on the Maiden sound, Unleash the Archers demonstrate an ability to write convincingly epic material, with gradual builds and intriguing mid-song interludes. Nowhere better is this exemplified than on the stunning album closer title track, an eight minute masterpiece with one of the most adrenaline inducing refrains I’ve heard all year. The journey in getting to that chorus is wildly diverse, with a beautiful near acoustic intro verse, complete with a Number of the Beast-styled sonic wall of guitars slamming in to usher in an almighty epic galloping rhythm section. Unleash the Archers succeed in making old traditions sound fresh where so many others have failed, because they have the songwriting smarts to back it up and create songs that are fresh and inspired and vital. And this is no disrespect intended believe me, but it wasn’t until more than halfway into my first listen through that I realized the band’s vocalist was female, so perfectly suited are Brittney Hayes vocals to the band’s sound. I could toss out a few reference points, but I realize they’d be terribly inaccurate, Hayes’ vocals are strong and distinct enough to defy comparisons. A must listen for 2017, and a lock for the best albums of the year list.

 

 

Orden Ogan – Gunmen:

We did actually talk about this one for a bit on the MSRcast episode 196, playing the Liv Kristine duet “Come With Me to the Other Side” on that episode, which is a brilliant epic power ballad. At that point I hadn’t heard the album in its entirety though I immediately loved that track. Liv Kristine is just money when it comes to guest appearances on other bands’ albums, with all due respect to her work with Theatre of Tragedy and Leaves Eyes, she’s just amazing in these roles (and perhaps long overdue for a little retrospective on this blog, she’s a pioneer that doesn’t get the credit she richly deserves). Anyway back to Orden Ogan, whom I compared to a piece of delicious cake on the podcast —- certainly a treat in its own right, but only if kept at a slice. I know that’s counter-intuitive for the kiddos out there, but when you’re an adult you want a grown up meal with proper ingredients, and save the sophisticated slice of cake for after, preferably with coffee while eaten in a state of rapturous bliss. So after having gorged myself on the tooth-hurting sugary frosting laden sheet-cake that is Gunmen, the band’s sixth album, I’m more sure than ever of my analogy. Hang on a sec while I brush my teeth…

 

An album of Orden Ogan’s technically accomplished and often fun Blind Guardian-inspired power metal is just too much for one sitting. I enjoy this band in small doses, but Sebastian Levermann’s approach to layering heaps and heaps of vocal tracks in a thick pile and rolling every single fricken chorus in them just wears on me. There’s another joyous gem in the bunch here, one “Forlorn and Forsaken”, an uptempo jam with an instantly lovable chorus that will be great on the drive up to the Texas Renaissance Festival this fall. But most of these songs are lacking those kinds of strong hooks, ones they desperately need to keep my ears perked up. Without them, this isn’t a band that’s gifted enough to provide anything else to grab onto. Their biggest musical inspiration —- those bards from Krefield, Germany —- write musical pieces that are far more musically compelling than any one single chorus, hook, or melodic motif. Even on Guardian’s recent work, there are specific magical moments that occur only once within a song that keep me coming back again and again, nevermind the rest of the song being awesome in its own right. Orden Ogan lack that complexity, their songwriting seemingly focused on locking onto a chorus that might work, and plastering it over and over and over again until they hit the four minute mark. When it works, its nice, but you can’t sustain albums like that.

 

 

Paradise Lost – Medusa:

A few weeks into getting full listening time with this one and I’m still a little on the fence. Its a weighty, massively heavy album, full of doom-laden riffs that shake your skull like a slow moving giant stomping across the cityscape. Its also a shift back to more mid-period elements of the band’s sound, touches of their Gothic metal and Depeche Mode influences creeping up in spots, particularly in Nick Holmes vocals here and there. That’s not a bad thing, and I suppose a carbon copy of The Plague Within and its complete deep dive into aggressive death/doom would have been criticized as being predictable. The thing is that album really rattled a lot of cages, particular folks like me who really hadn’t been all too enthused about the band’s recent output prior to that earth shaker of an album. It was the most uptempo album in ages, and I still jam cuts like “Cry Out” on a fairly consistent basis. The only song that’s really stood out as a must-add to my iTunes playlist from Medusa is “Blood and Chaos”, not coincidentally the most uptempo cut on the record. The truth is that I was never altogether too big on Paradise Lost throughout their career, and when I listen to Medusa, I’m reminded of how I’ve felt about most of their other albums (barring a couple). That feeling is one of ambivalence, where the album isn’t bad by any means to warrant severe, specific criticisms, but conversely doesn’t do much for me in terms of getting me hooked or excited. It seems The Plague Within was an exception to this rule, and things are back to normal, which I’ll chalk up to perhaps my own lack of enjoyment for the band rather than any misgivings on their own part. My co-host Cary, an actual Paradise Lost fan, was genuinely enthusiastic about this album. I might revisit this towards the end of the year to see if I change my mind.

 

 

Leprous – Malina:

If you watched the livestream of Emperor’s set at this year’s Wacken Open Air festival, you’d have noticed just how awesome their rendition of “Thus Spake the Nightspirit” was that evening. They had the sunset slot (so dubbed by me as that magical time of the day when a band takes the stage during the waning moments of daylight, with the sun setting in the distance, and finishing up just as dusk falls), and their performance of that song came just as things were growing dimmer in the sky around them. The performance was inspired, Ihsahn’s vocals full of fiery conviction, the musicianship in perfect lockstep, and the sound engineer had finally corrected the mix that was skewed during their first two songs. Their setlist was of course their much talked about performance of the Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk album in its entirety for these handful of 2017 festival dates. To play it here, in front of the largest crowd of any metal festival must have felt special, despite the rain soaking the ground and making moshing impossible lest the risk of slippage. When the song hit its emotional zenith, the ending refrain of “Nightspirit! Spirit! Spirit! / Embrace my soul!”, the camera panned to the crowd who were caught in the moment, arms up, horns up, singing along to one of black metal’s finest moments. Thousands of miles away, on a livestream feed, I felt it too. And what really made it stand out was just how excellent the vocals were during that specific lyric, sung by Ihsahn himself in his distinct and improved with age clean vocals, but more importantly, given uplift and dramatic tenor by the band’s keyboardist/backing vocalist, one Einar Solberg.

 

Solberg of course is a prominent member of Ihsahn’s backing band, as well as his brother-in-law (Ihsahn is married to Einar’s sister Ihriel), but he is also the mastermind behind Leprous as its vocalist, keyboardist and primary songwriter. A slight distinction on that last detail, Solberg writes nearly all of the band’s music, but his co-founding guitarist Tor Oddmund Suhrke contributes almost all of the lyrics. That’s an unusual combination but one they’ve employed seemingly since their debut album so whatever works right? I have tried to get into Leprous for as long as they’ve been releasing albums, coming close with 2015’s The Congregation, but somehow that appeal that lured so many others seemed elusive to me. Well I’m pleased to say that these dapper Nords (check their promo photos) have finally won me over, because Malina is just a revelation to listen to. They’ve finally hit upon that perfect mix of complexity and simplicity, the result being heard in more focused songwriting, as on album highlight “From the Flame”. Its the most accessible moment to date for sure, but just as compelling as any of the other cuts on the album, such as my personal favorite “Stuck” where the chorus is capable of tying together all the off-beat, zig-zag musical elements to support a gorgeous vocal melody. Sure, there’s a touch of melodic rock on offer here, the kind you’d associate with American rock radio, but its never overwhelming and as a background accent I find it refreshing in contrast to their overwhelmingly progressive approach. This was an unexpected treat, and its nice to get to enjoy Solberg as a vocalist in a more leading man context —- give this one a shot.

 


JULY

Where I Brainstorm Openly:

All the recent photobucket crap I’ve been dealing with has had me going back through the blog, article by article, fixing up images and dead YouTube links while I’m at it. I’ve found myself stopping at some of the articles and re-reading many of them, parts of others. Sometimes I cringe, but other times I’ve been surprised at how well I was able to convey an idea or my rationale for reviewing something a certain way. I wish there was a way to collect the best of what I’ve written and post them in a separate space/ site/ or digital place (er… isn’t that a site?), kind of like my own writing portfolio. If that sounds too much like me allowing my ego to make decisions, feel free to let me know, but it might be useful to have. Perhaps another WordPress site, but with a different theme so as to work better with what I have in mind. I dunno… I’ll have to think about that. What do other writers/bloggers do?

 

One thing I have thought about doing is pulling quotes of my writing that I’m really fond of and placing it in a transparent layer over an image of whatever band, album, genre I’m talking about and posting them to Instagram. Oh you didn’t know I’m on Instagram? Don’t worry, hardly anyone does and I really just use it as a tool to keep up with other metal bands, fellow metal writers and a load of friends and other non-metal interests of course. Its hard to come up with stuff to put on Instagram if you’re not into marketing yourself as a person (which I’m not), and I won’t bore you with the plate of eggs I made this morning (they were delish). But with the above idea, I can simultaneously promote my own writing as well as have a re-Gram able image that other fellow metal fans can throw around. Every now and then I’ll get a notification on my phone that someone’s liked an old Instagram image I’ve thrown up… why this person has found it I have no idea but it does happen. Remember that idea I had in March of last year to put something up on Instagram everyday? I actually made it through successfully, but wow was that brutal. Maybe I can make a bunch of these at once and parcel them out —- would perhaps make it interesting to see what came up next.

 

Okay, enough about social media. What I also noticed when going through the old blog posts was that sometimes really good pieces just never got any attention at all. I haven’t done a Metal Pigeon Recommends since last year’s feature on Sentenced, which I thought was pretty excellent, but maybe was alone in that thinking(!). I may have just failed in promoting it well or had it published at a bad time (Sentenced is a fall weather type of band, not the go to for mid-August, so it might be on me). I’d love to republish that sometime later this year, as well as a few other things that I have my eye on that I think might have sailed under the radar. If I’m being honest, the lack of response on that one made me put off publishing the next one. The most popular piece by far on the site is something I wrote back in 2012 called “The Legacy of Roy Khan“, which not only went semi-viral when I published it, but continues to draw in those forlorn souls who Google search Roy Khan and see this usually listed near the top. Its been the gift that keeps on giving site visitor wise, but I’d love for other lesser known things to grab an audience.

 

That kind of brings me to another thing that’s been running through my mind as I go on this backwards-in-time journey through the blog. Within the past two years, I’ve settled into a more manageable pace of consuming new music for the purposes of the blog, as opposed to the overwhelming amount I was trying to juggle a few years ago. When I first decided to purposefully slash the amount of stuff I was forcing myself to cover, I thought I’d get more time to attempt the fun stuff I had been putting off for awhile. Like what you ask? Well for example like putting together in-depth top ten lists for what I considered the essential classic albums of various metal subgenres. Ranking my favorite bands discographies, doing a survey of what I considered the best twenty Maiden songs (just to spitball ideas). I kind of leapt into this a little while ago when I put out my list of Blind Guardian’s most overlooked songs, a piece that was incredibly fun to brainstorm and write, and I’d like to do that with other favorite bands: Kamelot, Nightwish, etc to name a pair that I certainly know others would love to chime in on. Whether it ends up being songs or albums is still undecided, but the point is to release more stuff along those lines that create real in-depth discussion and tangible debate.

 

I think I’ve been inspired by all the episodes of BangerTV’s Lock Horns YouTube show I’ve watched, where genuinely entertaining discussions arise over subjects you wouldn’t expect them to. Part of the responsibility I decided I’d shoulder myself with when I started the blog was an effort to build legitimacy for maligned subgenres such as power metal, to defend it and argue its artistic validity. But that’s been a scary proposal, one I’m afraid I’ll muck up in a clumsy effort. But being a part of a group such as the US Power Metal Connection on Facebook (even as a lurker) has shown me that people really want to talk about this stuff and have open debates about it. Sometimes the problem with new album reviews is that a lot of people don’t get around to listening to said album when they’re just being released —- hell I get promos for some of them and even I don’t manage that. By the time they do, looking up old reviews might not be their most immediate priority (or even a priority), and I have to remind myself that not everyone is as obsessive compulsive about music as I am where getting into a band or album involves a splurge of joyful research afterwards. Don’t worry if you do keep up with the new album reviews though, they’ll keep coming, but I’m going to feel less guilty about delaying them in favor of working on more fun things.

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2015 // Part Two: The Albums

And we’re here, closing the book on 2015 with a look back at the best albums of the year! I’d like to think that this will be my last word on this crazy, release loaded year but I know that I missed a lot of albums due to being overwhelmed with new music all throughout the year (so don’t be surprised to see something else pop up in the future about a lost or forgotten 2015 gem). Like I said in the preamble to my best songs list, this was the most exhausting year in metal that I can ever remember, and I usually try to get these lists out in the middle of December but simply playing catch-up pushed me into the holidays and beyond. Thanks to everyone for the patience you had for my unpredictable updating throughout such a turbulent year, and for continuing to read the blog and participating too —- when you guys leave comments on articles or Twitter or Facebook, it motivates me to keep writing! When I started this blog I didn’t think I’d have one regular reader, let alone a whole community of smart, incredibly friendly metal aficionados with really interesting takes. I hope this list was worth all your waiting!

I’ll boil down the list criteria by saying that I selected this year’s chosen ten from a larger pool of twenty-two shortlisted albums. In considering their placement on the list, I heavily weighed and took into consideration my iTunes/iPod play counts, and though they’re not always the determining factor, they’re almost always the tiebreaker as well as a way to keep myself honest. I like to limit year end lists to ten because it forces me to scrutinize harder and make tough cuts, and because I think lists that go to twenty-five or fifty albums are ridiculous in that the order of numbers past ten doesn’t really mean anything or tend to have any logic behind it. There were a handful of albums that I gave relatively good reviews of throughout the year that don’t appear here, and I’m okay with that because these ten really are the most deserving of another round of glowing praise. Read on!

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2015:

 

 

1.  Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud:

In case you missed my Amorphis / New England Patriots analogy in my original review for Under The Red Cloud, we sit here just a day removed from the Patriots once again making the AFC championship game, a win away from their second Super Bowl appearance in a row, so do yourself a favor and give it a glance. It may be a nutty comparison, but I think it illustrates just how impressive this band’s run has been with delivering quality albums year after year since their recruitment of Tomi Joutsen as lead vocalist (and for awhile before that too). These guys are like the Patriots, perennial (so to speak) post-season contenders, and that means that they always harbor the possibility of getting hot and making that run to a championship (or in Amorphis’ case, releasing the third masterpiece of their career). For you non-sports guys and gals… don’t worry, the analogy stops here: Simply put, this was not only the album that I listened to the most in 2015 (which is saying something considering it was released in September) but in my estimation the only flawless album to be released all year. You’d think that would make it a shoe-in for this number one spot, but it had some serious competition with the runner-up below… my nod going to Amorphis on the basis that it would be utterly dishonest for an album that I never skip tracks on to get bumped below one that I do.

The band hit upon something magical with Under The Red Cloud, an album that seems to run on a distinctive sound separate from anything else they’ve done —- there are recurring melodic themes and motifs at work here that while never entirely repeating are suggestive enough of each other to make everything sound cohesive. That its lyrical subject matter is not based on the Kalevala is also something of a distinction, the album instead being a loose collection of songs about the theme of existing and living in the troublesome modern world today, hence the ominous Red Cloud of the title. The lyrics continue to be outsourced to Finnish poet/artist Pekka Kainulainen, translated by one Ike Vil, and then given to Joutsen to adapt into vocal melodies —- a three part process that has to ensure that the original intent and perspective is not lost in translation. That perspective was a huge factor in a lyric geek such as myself falling in love with this album, because as I noted in the original review, they came across as if “you’re listening to words that could be recited by someone sitting around a flickering campfire telling you long remembered stories”. Kainulainen rarely relies on metaphysical ideas in his poetry-lyrics, instead choosing to paint emotive scenes with gritty, concrete imagery such as found in nature, a vivid example showing up in the very first verse of the album on the title track:

I retired to a towering mountain
Laid down in a circle of stones
For three days and for three nights
I listened to the skull of a bear
The sun burnt its sigil into my chest
The rain washed the evil away
Time spun itself around me
The moon cast its silvery shell

This approach gives the album a earthen, windswept, ancient feel that seems to influence its often Eastern sounding melodies. Joutsen is also perfect as their interpreter, introducing inflection on all the right words or syllables, and his accented vocal giving them a gravity that they deserve (their impact would be diminished if they were being sung by some American radio-rock schlep).

Joutsen also comes bearing surprises on this album, namely, the surprising amount of full on death growling vocals that are on display across nearly all of the album. Its an unexpected change of direction for a band that had been largely moving away from death metal tendencies as recently as Skyforger, even though its usage popped up here and there on 2013’s Circle. Only lead-off single “Sacrifice” goes without Joutsen’s doomy-death metal vocals on Under The Red Cloud , and that’s likely the reason its the first single. It also happens to be one of the album’s best songs, with a rather stunning music video to boot, one that makes terrific use of the always surprising Scandinavian countryside (kinda looks like Texas in some parts apparently). Joutsen’s ability to deliver incredible clean vocal melodies over phonetically dense lyrics such as “Come when the sun has gone away / When the warmth has gone” is one of the major reasons he should be name dropped in any conversation about best metal vocalists working today. Guitarist Esa Holopainen is of course one of a small few of Finnish musicians who are masters of expressing melancholy through their melodies, and he does not disappoint here, his eloquent guitar motif brushing the song with autumnal colors. I love Holopainen as a songwriter because like his surname sharer in Nightwish, he brings an armload of hooks and awesome choruses to the table, and his songs on the album are testament to that.

His songwriting partner in crime is keyboardist Santeri Kallio, who this time brings in a handful of uptempo, expansive, and bright songs to serve as the yang to Holopainen’s more dark, brutal, melancholic yin. For all of Holopainen’s innate ability to serve up memorable singles, Kallio is matching him step for step on this album, bringing to the table songs with keyboard forged melodic motifs that are captivating and hypnotic in their own right. His best one to date is also my personal favorite of the album, the cascading, rollicking, punchy and brutal “Bad Blood”, the most headbanging-inducing song of the year. Its startling to hear such a keyboard driven song also be so utterly heavy, but Kallio is talented enough to balance its pop sensibilities with the heaviness of the guitars by allowing Joutsen to shoulder the burden of the primary melody when the keyboards fade. Kallio also works wonders on the majestic, folky “Tree of Ages”, featuring Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann on flute and tin whistle —- and if the smoky, acoustic intro doesn’t draw you in, the almost folk-dance like quality to the guitar work during the pre-chorus bridge most definitely will. I love that this song is simultaneously loaded with pretty, delicately performed melodies yet also brutal in a near guttural way, with Joutsen delivering one of his heaviest melo-death vocal performances to date. Its a microcosm of the entire album, a perfect witches brew of everything Amorphis do so well and only like they can. This was from start to finish an enthralling album, one I was listening to everyday for weeks unending it seemed, and one I’m happy to call the album of the year (or their Vince Lombardi Trophy!).

 

 

2.  Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.:

Where to start with this one? I guess the only surprising thing about seeing it on this year end list is that its not sitting at the top of it, and I’ll get to that in a bit. Its worth saying that Hand. Cannot. Erase. is one of the few albums released in 2015 that truly deserves all the praise heaped upon it (and praise has been heaped, in heaping amounts!). Its been a long time since an album has drawn me so fully into its backstory, delivered such a compelling and sensory overloading media experience, with its songs leaving me emotionally drained and listless. That it happened at all was the first shock to my system that Steven Wilson delivered with this one, because truth be told I was kind of on the outside looking in with him. I explained it in my original review in greater detail, but suffice it to say I was not the biggest fan of his last two solo outings, and I missed Porcupine Tree terribly (because their last album, 2009’s The Incident, was the last work by Wilson that I really felt some sort of interest in). It’d be presumptuous to say that this album restored my faith in Wilson’s work —- I didn’t lose faith in him producing interesting work (plenty of people loved those albums that I didn’t care for), I had lost faith in my ability to appreciate his work, and he restored that by telling me a story that left me chilled, saddened, and also hopeful and determined.

That story was about two characters, the fictional H. at the heart of Hand. Cannot. Erase., and the very real Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who died in her London flat and whose body went undiscovered for over two years. I was first introduced to her story in an interview with Wilson just before the album came out, where he mentioned having seen a 2011 documentary about Vincent called Dreams of a Life. I sought out and watched the documentary myself, and was shaken by what it revealed, but I was more intrigued by Wilson’s own reaction to the story and how it mirrored my own. Vincent’s story was baffling and tragic because she wasn’t a “little old bag lady” as Wilson summarily put it, she was actually a well-heeled, popular, attractive young woman who seemed to be at the center of the social circles she flitted in. Wilson recalled his own experiences as a young musician living in the heart of London, a vast, major metropolis, and how he didn’t even know the names of his neighbors in the flat he lived in. In my review, I quoted him: “If you really want to disappear, go and live in the heart of the biggest city, surround yourself with millions of other people. Go right to the place where the most people live and you will disappear.” I brought it up with my MSRcast co-host Cary when we were recording an episode one night, and he confessed that he didn’t know who his neighbors were either —- on a street he’s lived on for years! I thought about my own apartment, how I didn’t even know the people who lived across the breezeway from me. It was an alarming realization.

The album took these thoughts of mine and put them through an emotional thresher, as I sat down with my Blu-Ray edition and in a darkened room watched the life of H. flit across my screen in photographs. Wilson’s character is not an exact replication of Vincent in fiction form (in fact H.’s biography is quite different), but she’s clearly inspired by her, and Wilson detailed it out to an extreme length —- the deluxe hardback book edition of the album featured photographs, diary entries, actual newspaper clippings printed on faux newsprint, and letters telling the more detailed story of H.’s life. In setting her story to music, Wilson wanted to reflect the urban setting his character was living in, and so he dreamed up a schizophrenic hodgepodge of sugary pop, hypnotic trip-hop, quiet English folk, avant-garde noise and tied it all together with progressive rock with a little splash of Porcupine Tree’s flirtations with metal. No one song sounds the same on this album, and yet for the most part they are all equally as compelling, each one a snapshot of a slice of H.’s life at a different point in time. Take for example the title track, which bounces and blooms as a sunny pop song about relationships and love, that is until you read deeper into its lyrics, narrated by H.: “It’s not you, forgive me if I find I need more space / Cause trust means we don’t have to be together everyday”. Wilson doesn’t come out and clonk you on the head with a megaphone yelling about how his character has anti-social, isolating tendencies —- he creates illustrations that show you.

There’s so much about this album that I purely love that its hard to narrow down specifics, but “Perfect Life” deserves a brief mention because not only is it the album’s most adventurous track (I’ve been favorably comparing it to Saint Etienne a lot, and if you’re unfamiliar with that band, well, you know what you need to do), but it evokes nostalgia in the way that only Wilson can. Its dreamy, atmospheric video of H. and her temporary foster sister (or a vague representation of them) playing in sun soaked hills and fields was the best music video I’ve seen in years. I was also enraptured by “3 Years Older” and its wistful folk-rock, with devastatingly brutal lyrics about growth and age. I’ve spoken at length about my love for “Happy Returns”, but not nearly as much about the musically charming but lyrically haunting “Routine”, where Wilson turns daily chores into poetic lyricism: “And keep making beds and keep the cat fed / Open the Windows let the air in / And keep the house clean and keep the routine / Paintings they make still stuck to the fridge”. I guess the stopper in why it ultimately isn’t my overall best album of the year is because I wasn’t too wild on the jazz-funk-prog of “Home Invasion” or “Regret #9”. They’re not bad by any means, but I only hear them in untouched album spins, meaning they don’t ever receive distinct attention from me on their own merits. It was hard to justify giving the title to an album that I found musical flaws with when there proved another that had none. That being said, no album took me on such an emotional journey or left me with so many unanswered questions as this one, and its the spiritual album of the year for that alone.

 

 

 

3.  Draconian – Sovran:

At the beginning of 2015, I thought that it would be the year of the legends, the veterans that were slated to release new albums and were going to show up in force, delivering one masterpiece after another in defiance of the passage of time and changing tastes. That didn’t quite happen as magnanimously as I hoped, but what did happen that was entirely a surprise was a changing of the tide in female fronted metal. A subgenre that had grown stale with cliched sounds of classical sopranos and/or lightweight voices has found a new group of talented singers with raw emotion and gravitas in their vocal styles. To be fair, I think this is something that really started off under the radar for the past three years or so, but its in surveying the landscape of 2015 in which we’re able to clearly see how this facet of metal has changed for the better. Realize that while I say that, I’m acknowledging that the best female fronted metal album did not come from my beloved Nightwish, who released a strong album to be sure, but one that failed to thrill me as much as I had hoped (or as much as 2011’s Imaginaerum did). No, the honor for the best female vocal metal album goes to gothic/doom metallers Draconian for Sovran, and its simply one of the year’s most compelling listens. Its probably presumptuous of me to insist upon this being the best album of their career as well, because I’m relatively new to the band, having been introduced to them sometime after their last release (2011’s A Rose for the Apocalypse)… but seriously, its the best album of their career.

I suppose that’s also my way of suggesting that if you’re new to Draconian, start here first, and never mind that its their first with new vocalist Heike Langhans. She’s replacing their original and longtime vocalist Lisa Johansson, but the differences between the two are far more subtle than the obvious stylistic differences between say Tarja and Anette in the Nightwish transition (or another Finnish band, as you’ll soon learn when you scroll down below). That isn’t to say they’re interchangeable, because Langhans’ voice comes across as a touch deeper, and smoother than Johansson’s higher register, and as a result sounding more naturally ethereal. I prefer her style because it seems like the band responds to it better —- Sovran is a testament to that. This is such an organic sounding album, and one that’s innately an emotional one, its sound reflecting loneliness, sadness, empathy, yearning, even cosmic emptiness to name the most apparent aspects, all blended together. Its a sound that’s conveyed as equally through Langhans’ enchanting singing as it is through the lead guitar tone of Johan Ericson, his long sustaining open chord patterns filling in the emotional frequency where Langhans’ leaves off. Strangely, by shifting their songwriting further away from their doom oriented past and leaning a little more towards gothic metal, Draconian has actually gotten more rhythmic and heavier as a result; their rhythm section working in tandem to build hypnotic, groove oriented beds where tempo shifts seem far more natural than they ever have on past records.

In my original review, I gushed about Langhans’ abilities to introduce duality in her performance, pointing out how her distant, detached ice queen delivery on “Stellar Tombs” contrasted with her burning, fiery vocal on “Rivers Between Us”. She has a plethora of brilliant moments across the album, such as her ascending, almost soothingly sung warning during the bridge of “Dusk Mariner” at the 4:56-5:25 mark (followed immediately by a gorgeously emotive guitar solo, again serving as another example of lead guitar working as a lyrical instrument). In the middle of “No Lonelier Star”, she projects convincingly bleak desperation during the 4:15-5:12 bridge, demonstrating her ability to dial up intensity and squeeze the most out of the lyrical mood, something that is undervalued in metal where we often get preoccupied about the technicality of vocal deliveries. But my absolute favorite moment is on the anguished ballad (or as close to it as you’re gonna get on Sovran) “Rivers Between Us”, during the 2:50-4:12 mark, where guest vocalist Daniel Anghede (of Crippled Black Phoenix) delivers an awesome Sentenced-like lyric “Let me take the noose from our necks and carry us home / Still so alive, even after you die, transcending with time”. When Langhans’ joins him a little later to sing “Wake me slowly or watch me fall”, the music skips a few beats and they’re both a cappela for a moment before Ericson joins them with yet another superbly dark and sweet guitar fragment. On Sovran, Draconian seem to be finishing each others’ sentences, and what a haunting story they’re telling.

 

 

 

4.  Jorn Lande and Trond Holter – Dracula: Swing Of Death:

I remember with a tinge of regret how I quietly snickered at the news that Jorn Lande was going to release an album called Dracula: Swing of Death. Of course he would I thought, this was the same guy who released an album called Bring Heavy Rock to the Land (why it wasn’t spelled Lande I’ll never understand!), so a concept album about Dracula? Yep, sounded about right. This was sometime in late 2014, and a few months later in February of 2015 I was eating my snarky words. It only took a few complete spins of this admittedly oddball, out of nowhere, one-off (presumably) project before I realized that I was listening to something spectacular. I didn’t know much about Trond Holter before this album, but have learned since that he’s been a jack of all trades guitarist for various projects including a long term stint as one fourth of the Norwegian glam rock band Wig Wam (Eurovision contestants themselves). I’m not all too clear on how or why or when this collaboration got started, but I suppose that’s less important than talking about why it actually works. It works because Holter’s songwriting style is wild, unabashed hard rock tempered with pop smarts (as in big, fat, huge hooks), and it complements Jorn’s perfectly suited vocals. And it really works because both Holter and Jorn are shrewd enough to realize that writing a concept album about Dracula is a little silly, and therefore the music should be, well, a little silly.

So instead of adhering to the straight-faced power metal approach Jorn has taken in Masterplan and Avantasia, Holter mashes up glammy hard rock, a little power metal virtuosity, and a huge helping of ’50s/’60s rock n’ roll pastiche ala Meatloaf to create an old-school rock opera —- one I haven’t heard executed so brilliantly since Green Day’s masterful American Idiot. So on the title track “Swing of Death”, we’re treated to an intro of jazzy, snappy percussion and jaunty piano (think Shakey’s Pizza), and Jorn singing along in his best rockabilly strut —- all before the song explodes with the entrancing backing vocals of Lena Floitmoen Borresen supporting Jorn during the refrain. She’s the hidden MVP of this album, a guest musician that doesn’t get top billing but ends up on five of its ten songs, with lead vocal parts on four of them. Her voice is Rent on Broadway meets 80s pop-rock rasp, a perfect mix that makes her lead parts on “Save Me” come across so charmingly retro, loose and carefree in their delivery. It might be the best song on the album, Borresen’s honeyed vocal on the chorus an earworm as big as Ancalagon the Black, and she’s a fantastic duet partner for Jorn, not so much singing with him in its climatic final minutes as they’re singing to each other. Its such a lush, vibrant, and yes fun(!) moment that I can’t help but smile every time I hear it.

Holter deserves praise here as well, because these are terrific songs and he seems to have an innate sense of when to lean a little more rock n’ roll and when to tighten up with some power metal-esque musicianship. Check out the flurry of speedy old-world styled acoustic guitar runs in “Masquerade Ball”, a song that lives up to its title, with unorthodox songwriting that ditches any use of a chorus in favor of musical motifs and lyrical storytelling —- Jorn is in his element here, playing up to his role of Dracula with aplomb and gusto. Towards the end of the adrenaline injected rocker “Queen of the Dead”, Holter serves up some more unexpected guitar virtuosity with a classically inspired extended solo that draws on equal parts Van Halen as it does Malmsteen. And once again I’ll come back to Borresen’s tremendous contributions, such as on “River of Tears” where she solo floats a sugary, sparkling chorus in between Jorn’s heavy metal thunder verses. The mid-song bridge here at the 2:05 mark is a vivid highlight of just how playful the tone of this album can get, with Jorn’s sly vocals slinking around like Nosferatu in his castle in black and white, while Holter channels Brian May over some ragtime piano. Everything just comes together so well, the music serves the concept and the concept allows for the music to be as unrestrained, playful, and joyful as it sounds —- this might be one of the most fully realized albums of the year. My skepticism about it turned to surprise, to giddy happiness, and now to conviction. If you haven’t given this a shot, you’re not being fair to yourself.

 

 

 

5.  Amberian Dawn – Innuendo:

There’s always a sleeper hit of the year. One of those releases that sneaks up on the other albums competing for a spot on the year end list and before long you’re knocking off an early year favorite to make room for it. In this case Amberian Dawn sneaked in relatively late to the party in October (certainly not as late as last year’s December surprise list topper Triosphere), and it wasn’t until November that it finally dawned on me that I had been giving it a lot of repeat spins without even realizing it… hey, it was a crazy year guys. Finland’s Amberian Dawn have been around since 2006, are on their second vocalist —- the supremely talented Capri Virkkunen, and my first exposure to them comes on their seventh studio album Innuendo. Better late than never I suppose, and in this case I think I’m catching the band at a pivotal moment, one where they are finding a uniqueness to their sound that is setting them apart from anyone else in the female vocal-led metal world. On a cursory listen of this album you’ll hear very slickly produced, almost glossy power metal with strong pop songwriting fundamentals (strong hooks and a lot of major keys), but give the album more time and you’ll hear that the tone and timbre of Amberian Dawn both musically and vocally is unlike anything else being done in metal.

I’ll just come right out and say that I love this album because of its deep, overt ABBA-influence, a tendency reinforced by primary songwriter/guitarist Tuomas Seppala and Virkkunen’s unabashed love for the Swedish pop institution. Listening to Innuendo, you get the feeling this is a style of songwriting that Seppala has been wanting to deliver for a long time, and he now finds himself paired with a singer who feels the same way. Its interesting to note that Virkkunen had even performed in an ABBA related musical sometime after her attempt at a conventional pop career didn’t take off (oh yeah she also performed in a few Eurovisions, to further the ABBA connection I’m making). Seppala is on record as stating them as influences, in fact he even posted a shot from their “Happy New Year” music video on the band’s Facebook page on New Year’s Eve (not sure how many people got that reference, I sure did!). This is a relatively new development, started in part on Virkkunen’s first album as vocalist, 2014’s Magic Forest, which seemed to be a bridging album from the band’s more operatic vocally inclined albums with previous singer Heidi Parviainen. In fact, to me it seems like Amberian Dawn’s shift from Parvianen’s classical approach to Virkkunen’s pop-rock belting closely mirrors their countrymen in Nightwish with their changing from Tarja Turunen to Anette Olzon.

Like Nightwish with Olzon on board, Amberian Dawn has been able to begin a transformation of their sound away from the limitations of symphonic power metal. Seppala now writes with more of an ear towards pop, of the sophisticated and complex variety, the kind that Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson perfected more than three decades ago. I hear shades of “Money, Money, Money” in “The Court Of Mirror Hall”, and a little “I Have A Dream” in “Angelique”, and composites of various ABBA classics on gems like “Innuendo” and especially “Knock Knock Who’s There” (whose title seems like a tongue in cheek homage towards ABBA songtitles like “Honey, Honey” and “I do, I do, I do, I do, I do”). That particular song is an absolute joy to listen to, with Seppala’s songwriting lean, sharp and with hooks built into hooks —- most coming in the form of Virkkunen’s own backing vocal tracks that are layered to create the effect of her singing with a partner. I can’t get enough of the timbre of her voice, seemingly a perfect blending of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. And look, don’t let your takeaway here be that Amberian Dawn have nothing original to offer —- I think what they’re doing here is bold and fresh, taking an often ignored influence on metal and embracing it. This is very much an album built upon a metallic foundation, but one that’s not afraid to embrace other genres and mix things up. Virkkunen might be the surprise talent of the year, her versatility as a dramatic singer and rock n’ roll belter reminding me of how refreshing it was to first hear Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. These ladies are changing the sound of female fronted metal and its long overdue and fantastic.

 

 

6.  Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror:

Argh, it hurts not to see this higher, it really does. Long before I started The Metal Pigeon, I was keeping lists of my best metal albums of the year, and our bards took top honors in 2010 for At The Edge of Time, an album that I’m not afraid to speak of in the same breath as Imaginations or Nightfall. Its doubly frustrating because there’s so much awesome packed into this album that it rightly deserves to be on this list, but it has flaws that can’t be ignored. The bad stuff out of the way first? Alright, lets get this over with: I wasn’t thrilled about the production (although fellow Guardian fans have told me my contention lies mostly at the fault of the mastering job, I’m not an audiophile so I’m really flying blind on that debate) because at times the plethora of sound the band is trying to force together at once becomes a cluttered mess of layers of sound without any room to breathe. I talked a bit about this in greater detail on my hat tip to “Distant Memories” (the runner-up for Best Song of the Year), but examples abound on the album where you want the crashes to crash louder, the orchestra to swell over the guitars, or vice-versa for that matter. I also found that despite all my repeated efforts, I was unable to fully love “Sacred Mind” with its underachieving chorus despite its amazing intro section and first verse (in my original review I speculated that Hansi might’ve over-sung the chorus, I now realize that he actually under developed its vocal melody). And I think I’ve come to the conclusion that “At the Edge of Time” (with a small exception), “Miracle Machine”, and “Ninth Wave” are underwhelming —- not bad, not skip-able, just underwhelming for various reasons I don’t have the space to get into here.

But the greatness that is Blind Guardian shows up in majestic moments, though you have to put in the time to discover them, because Beyond the Red Mirror is their most inaccessible album to date, even more so than A Night at the Opera which sounds positively anthemic compared to this. Look no further than the track I just criticized as a whole for the album’s singular best moment, at the :57 second mark of “At the Edge of Time”, for which I wrote in my original review:

“Hansi beautifully dreams out the lyrics “Who’ll grant me wings to fly? / And will I have another try?”. Its a simple lyric on the surface, but its unanswerable question is evocative in the very essence of what its asking —- and Hansi’s phrasing and emotive delivery just bowls me over every time I hear it. Moments like that are what I wish I could instantly summon whenever someone asks me why Blind Guardian is so great…”

The most gloriously, Guardian-esque epic might be “The Throne”, a song that races along at an insistent clip and is invigorated with a sense of urgency in all facets. Its chorus is incendiary with the explosive manner it delivers its hook, group choirs and Wagnerian orchestral bombast working in tandem. Speaking of, “The Grand Parade” is a lot to take in, but once you do you’ll be able to separate its layers upon layers of sound to uncover the celebration the band has put to music. Its an incredible collision of the band merging together riff based song sections with choral vocal melody led arrangements, particular in the chorus where these elements seem to run perpendicular to one another —- somehow it all works. And in digging up another isolated, one-shot only example of “how did they ever dream that up?” we have “Ashes of Eternity” at the 4:23 mark, where the way they’ve written Hansi’s vocal melody during ““I won’t lie / While bright eyes are turning pale / Your sands run low” is the kind of jaw dropping moment that you get everyone in the room to shut up for (while pointing to the speaker with a goofy grin on your face of course). What can I say, its Blind Guardian —- you know this is worth listening to. Its not perfect, but its the most adventurous Blind Guardian album to date, one that will challenge you as a fan to listen closer and longer. I doubt anyone will complain about that.

 

 

 

7.  Kamelot – Haven:

Clearly the best album of the fledgling Tommy Karevik era (if it wasn’t better than the flawed Silverthorn, we’d be talking about the possible end of the band as we knew them), Kamelot also knocked out one of the year’s strongest albums in 2015 with Haven. This is due in large part to the increased role of Tommy Karevik in the songwriting process (if you really want to dive into the meaty reasons, I’ll refer you to my original review), a tangible change that you’ll notice upon the opening moments of the album in “Fallen Star”, one of the year’s best songs. Karevik’s higher registers allows the band to return somewhat to their Karma/Epica/The Black Halo era, prompting Thomas Youngblood and Oliver Palotai to write more major key melodies, while allowing Karevik the space to fully develop his vocal melodies —- space largely denied to him on Silverthorn. So when you hear “Veil of Elysium” and think to yourself, “this could’ve been on Karma“, you’re not alone in that feeling. What makes Karevik a special vocalist is his Karevik-isms that Seventh Wonder fans are all too familiar with; for instance while singing the lyric “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his deft vocal inflections during the 1:00-1:06 mark give the line an extra dose of ache and sympathy. He’s half the fun of listening to Seventh Wonder classics like Mercy Falls and The Great Escape, having an innate sense of R&B/pop inflection that loosen up a performance a more standard prog-metal vocalist would’ve played straight.

Conversely, Karevik also sounds increasingly like himself, drifting further and further away from mirroring the Khan-esque timbre that so many people have marveled at him having. On a song like “End of Innocence” he sings in a style that I have an incredibly hard time imagining Roy Khan singing in, particularly during its chorus. It actually sounds like something that could be on a Seventh Wonder album, albeit with a little less jazzy-prog in the music underneath, and that’s what Kamelot and Karevik should sound like together. For all the praise fans were showering him with for being akin to Khan in all things, I guarantee you they’d change their minds if that’s all he ever did during his run in Kamelot. This positive change is also heard on tunes like “Beautiful Apocalypse” and the epic, yearning “Under Grey Skies”, a song that I’ve grown to love more and more for its very audacity (hey it almost sounds like a Broadway number at points, a gorgeous one at that). This is the duet with Delain’s Charlotte Wessels who proves a good counterpoint to Karevik, her high register able to sweetly swirl around his soaring tenor at the end when they join their vocals together (her performance here is worth noting, her well placed accents on specific words makes a great performance transcendent). When this album came out, I thought it would be higher up this list, but some fatal flaws exist in “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)” where the success of the aforementioned Wessels duet really puts into perspective just how pointless Alissa White-Gluz’s inclusion here ended up being. And of course there’s the abominable “Revolution”, in consideration for the worst Kamelot song of all time (and I got to hear it live in December —- it wasn’t any better and its motives were entirely transparent). Still, the future looks bright for one of power metal’s greatest acts.

 

 

8.  Swallow the Sun – Songs From the North I, II & III:

I love bands with ambition, even if they don’t quite execute the way they planned or simply fall flat on their face. Finland’s doom-death brigade Swallow the Sun thankfully fell into the former category with their attempt at swinging for the fences with the monstrous triple disc work, Songs From the North I, II, & III. The band seemed to take a page from Opeth’s Deliverance / Damnation playbook and divided each chapter into a slice of their sound albeit in a more exacting manner. So we got the first chapter in the form of a typical Swallow the Sun album full of heavy / soft dynamics; a second chapter that was largely chilled out acoustic balladry (I feel like some clean electric is also used, in addition to the obvious keyboard sonics); and a third chapter that dramatically slows down the tempos, turns up the heaviness and becomes something akin to funeral doom. I wasn’t wild on the concept of the latter when I first read about the album concept but I figured it wasn’t enough to keep me away from such an intriguing project. If you read my review in the original Fall MegaCluster you’ll remember my mentioning that I wasn’t the biggest Swallow the Sun fan before this, having only enjoyed them in small fits and starts in the past. The good news is that Songs From the North changed all that, and they were able to do it largely on the strength of the first chapter aka their “regular album”.

That regular album is just about perfect too, book-ended with two brilliant tracks in “With You Came The Whole Of The World” and my album favorite “From Happiness To Dust”, the latter featuring one of the most elegiac and heartbreaking guitar motifs I’ve heard all year. Then there’s the superb duet between ‘Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamaki and guest singer Aleah Stanbridge on the dreamy, lovelorn “Heartstrings Shattering”, as devastating a treatise on emotional abandonment and loneliness as you’ll ever hear. Another favorite is “10 Silver Bullets”, possibly the most uptempo song on the album with its hypnotic opening riff sequence and its loud to really loud dynamics in the most brutal refrain that I can remember hearing in forever (its not so much a chorus as it is a good pummeling). I’ve never heard Kotamaki as wildly unrestrained and vicious sounding as he manages to come across in specific moments here, not to mention his increasingly skillful clean delivery, which is showcased far better across this and the second chapter than at any other point in his career. Oh yeah, the second, acoustic chill out chapter is also a major reason the album is on this list, because songs like “Heart Of A Cold White Land”, “Songs From the North” and “Away” are fog-drenched laments that I kept returning to throughout the year. But while I’ve been appreciating the funeral doom third disc a little more since my original review, I’m still far from liking it to a point that I’ll return to it alone. It prevented this album from being higher on this list but didn’t diminish my admiration of the band in shooting for the moon here.

 

 

9.  Year of the Goat – The Unspeakable:

I think Sweden’s Year of the Goat have filled a rock n’ roll shaped void that’s existed for years and years in my conscience with their excellent new sophomore album The Unspeakable. Their ghoulish, mysterious take on occult rock with a sprinkling of metallic spice is the first band from that burgeoning movement that I’ve personally drawn a connection to, and they hit a sweet spot that has been vacated by older bands such as The Cult, H.I.M., and the recently broken up In Solitude. The latter is a great touchstone for anyone who is uninitiated into Goat’s musical orgy, as their vocalist Thomas Sabbathi shares a lot in common with In Solitude’s Pelle Ahman stylistically (Sabbathi is a little more controlled in his delivery but their timbres are pretty darn close). What separates them from the rest of their peers is just how vital, fresh, and very modern they sound. Where other bands are hell bent on emulating studio/production sounds from the 70s to enhance the throwback feel of their albums, Year of the Goat don’t particularly care if their music sounds, ya know, new.

They also don’t care about doing unconventional things, like releasing an album with a twelve minute plus track as its opener on an album full of 3 to 5 minute jams. The song in question, “All He Has Read” has aspects that sound both old school and unnervingly modern, with classic metal / NWOBHM elements folded right alongside almost metalcore riffs (don’t panic!) and a rich, textural guitar led intro that would’ve fit right at home on the last Watain album. Its an epic track, and the album is book-ended by another in “Riders of Vultures”, actually the song that I was introduced to the band with on Fenriz’s essential pirate radio show (you should be listening to this already). The latter is a smoky, slowly strutting powerhouse built on some really inspired guitar lines via Goat’s own Izzy n’ Slash, Marcus Lundberg and Don Palmroos. The lead guitar mirrors Sabbathi’s tortured vocal melody with long open-note sustains while ferocious rhythm guitar snakes its way underneath —- you could picture this being the soundtrack to some black light adorned, pole-dancer equipped, smoke cloud filled nightclub (on TV of course… *cough*). Its almost a religious experience when the song opens up at the 3:10 mark, where haunting background vocals chant their wordless refrain while a guitar solo ushers in bells of doom and presumably the bacchanal that comes with. The shorter cuts are just as brilliant, with “The Wind” getting honored on the Best Songs List, but “Black Sunlight”, “Pillars of the South”, and “Vermin” (with its charming and quirky use of cowbell) are just as magnificent. Don’t let the occult rock thing put you off, this is actually a fun album to listen to —- a heady blending of Gn’R guitars, The Cult’s hard rock strut, and H.I.M.’s dark romance (don’t let that put you off either).

 

 

 

10.  Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful:

Such is the monumental songwriting ability of Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen that even when he fails to deliver a grand slam, he’s still hitting a home run. Said grand slam was in my estimation 2011’s Imaginaerum, an album that was diverse, colorful, surprising, epic as all get out and incredibly fun(!). It was their second effort with Anette Olzon on vocals, and it proved that Holopainen needed the space of two albums to not only find his footing writing for her ABBA-esque poppier voice, but more importantly for him to get used to writing outside of the constraints of Tarja Turunen’s operatic singing style —- a facet that defined the limits of their sound. Understanding this bit of history is crucial to putting Endless Forms Most Beautiful into context as their debut album with Floor Jansen. A valid criticism of the album is that Jansen, despite an overall strong performance, seems reserved and bottled up, forced to sing in a mid-range, pop-driven style that ignores her classical soprano abilities as well as her more rock oriented belting (although she does some of this on the album). This is by no means her fault, but I’ll argue that its not really Holopainen’s fault either, its simply a result of the difficulty in having to write for a new singer in an already established band —- you play it safer, write a little more conservatively… in other words, write what you know.

So its not a surprise that the band suggested in interviews that their new album was old-school Nightwish in spirit, more closer to their sophomore classic Oceanborn in style and spirit. It made sense not only stylistically but strategically as well, a way to write relatively direct, easily accessible songs that still allowed for their grandiose, Pip Williams fueled orchestral arrangements to flourish albeit in a more interwoven manner (as opposed to their more cinematic role in Imaginaerum and Dark Passion Play). Holopainen would benefit in being able to write songs with bright melodies, strong hooks, with space for creative ear worms all while being allowed to service his thematic lyrics above all else —- quietly the biggest reason why Jansen ended up singing in a Olzon-esque pop voice. Holopainen stated back when Olzon was introduced to the band that they chose a singer that deliberately didn’t sound like Turunen in order to avoid comparisons between the two —- but fans compared Olzon and Turunen anyway, some were even divided on loyalties. Jansen’s overall body of work suggests that she’s capable of being a midpoint between the styles of the previous two Nightwish vocalists; but Holopainen’s refusal to return to using classical styled vocals even when having the opportunity to do so is indicative of a sea change in how the band now operates, that thematic concepts dictate the music and lyrics, not their vocalist.

Still, that approach can’t ignore the fact that Jansen is new, and I think nine times out of ten a band will have growing pains adapting to it (Nightwish included, Dark Passion Play is a prime example too), but because Holopainen is so ridiculously amazing as a songwriter we still get a shimmering, rich, beautiful album. Brilliant songs abound, from “Alpenglow” to “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” to “Shudder Before the Beautiful” to the Best Songs list-maker “Weak Fantasy”. I have an even greater appreciation for the delicately folded ballad “Our Decades In The Sun” than I did when I first reviewed the album, with its transitional, stormy guitar and orchestra middle bridge at the 2:05 mark being a glorious one-shot moment that I keep coming back for. So why isn’t the album higher on the list or being hailed here as a masterpiece? Well songs like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, “Edema Ruh”, “My Walden”, and lead-off single “Élan” are merely average to good and while I don’t skip them on a full length play through, they’re not on my iPod. But the biggest culprit is the band’s twenty-four minute mess, “The Greatest Show On Earth”, which has a little over a minute and a half’s worth of interesting music to offer (from the 12:00 to 13:47 minute mark), a hugely disproportionate ratio. It doesn’t even touch “Song of Myself” from Imaginaerum or even the slightly clumsy “The Poet and the Pendulum” from Dark Passion Play on the Nightwish epic scale, and for a song trumpeted by the band to be the album’s centerpiece, it fails utterly. It was surprising considering Holopainen’s pedigree, where was any semblance of a melodic motif? The silver lining here is that just like with Olzon or even Kamelot with Tommy Karevik, Nightwish should fare much better in their second round with Jansen… who knows, we might even hear her bust out the soprano!

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