The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2020 // Part Two: The Albums

The end of a long yet seemingly short road. In less than ten days we’ll be done with 2020 and hopefully onto better days and weeks to come. For as much as we try to rationalize with ourselves that there is no tangible difference in our everyday lives when that calendar changes over at midnight Dec 31st… the reality is that our perception of a clean slate, however imaginary, can change enough in our mindset to make a tangible difference. Whether it’s the introduction of New Year’s resolutions or just feeling like you can start over —- if that’s a feeling you have, then screw rationalizations and just run with it. I’m calling it right now, I think 2021 is going to be a spectacular year. It might not seem like it at first with the virus still raging and vaccine rollouts moving slowly, but I’m feeling quite optimistic about things in all ways. You should know that I’m not normally like this, but if 2020 taught me anything, its how to better appreciate the things that we took for granted that made our lives bright and worth striving for. The end of the year is also time to reflect, and that’s a tough ask this year I know —- but not on the musical front, and I’m so happy to publish this year’s best albums list below. It’s a brief list that will always serve as a reminder to me that even in the darkest of days this year, the joy of being a music (and metal!) fan never wavered. If anything, I relied on it more this year than any other time in my life, it was the ward against everything bad in the world that threatened to spill into my brain and make life dull and grey. Bring on 2021, I’ve never been more ready.

1.   Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:

I think I knew right after my first pass through this album way back in the pre-pandemic before times, that this was going to be sitting atop my year end albums list. I simply loved it too much. So much so that I actually had to force myself to stop listening to it even after my review had been published because I was worried about potentially burning myself out on it too quickly. No, that wouldn’t do. I had to slow down and give it a rest, to keep it sounding as fresh as it was, and so I purposefully shelved it for weeks. The dam cracked frequently however, as I’d find myself returning for sneak listens throughout the summer months here and there when everything else sounded like static noise —- and only the sweetly dramatic magic of Adrienne Cowan and Jack Kosto’s songwriting could deliver what I yearned to hear. Their work on Emerald Seas transcends genre boundaries, at once combining the melodicism of power metal and the epic bombast of symphonic metal through a melodeath filter. Part of the band’s staggering talent is their technical background, all the members being students at the Berklee College of Music. It’s a facet that shows up in Kosto’s neoclassical shred inclinations; in Chris Dovas’ simply dizzying mix of aggressive thrash, death, and power metal drumming styles; and bassist Peter Albert de Reyna’s nimbly jazzy rhythmic performances, often in the foreground ala Eddie Jackson/John Myung, his role in these songs transcending rhythm section duties into jazzy, off-beat expressions to run counter to Kosto. And of course Cowan is as intense and vicious a screamer/growler as she is a shining light of a pure singer.

But it’s the songs that are the true stars here, richly musical gems like “Ghost Of A Dream” and “Every Crest” channeling the sheer inventiveness and ambition of Epica era Kamelot with their playful choice of instrumentation —- Spanish sounding acoustic guitars, some accordion, and massive layers of Hans Zimmer-esque keyboard orchestration. Kosto is the guitar child of Yngwie and Thomas Youngblood, inheriting the latter’s penchant for lean, muscular riffs yet capable of exploding into wild, seemingly unrestrainable neoclassical fury in fits and bursts. Cowan’s vocal melodies here are simply joyful and glorious, loaded with melodic integrity and emotional power. On “Unmapped Darkness”, she manages to guide very literate, narrative lyrics into a sweeping, grandiose melody that is worthy of a Broadway stage. Cowan’s penchant for theatricality is best exemplified in how she ties her lyrical approach to that of the thematic vision of the album, it’s nineteenth century Romanticism a backdrop to the story of a lone sea captain on a quest for eternal life. Her skill at penning imaginative, imagery rich lyrics is seen on album highlights “Succumb” and the breathless ballad “Silvery Moon”, the character and scene coming to life via skillful diction and a strong narrative voice. She’s just an undeniably gifted lyricist and songwriter, her way with words sharing a spiritual kinship with the mighty Roy Khan’s songwriting work with Kamelot, where he elevated power metal into high art. Seven Spires have achieved just that with Emerald Seas, delivering an outright masterpiece with their sophomore album when their debut Solveig suggested they’d begin a steady climb towards something promising. They’ve smashed that timeline to bits, and perhaps captured lightning in a bottle here —- but I seriously doubt this will be a one off. They’re only just beginning.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

2.   Countless Skies – Glow:

One of those out of left field fall surprises that always seems to occur, Glow was the melodeath album that 2020 demanded. Channeling the melodic emotion of Insomnium with the clinical precision of Omnium Gatherum, Countless Skies filtered their influences through a kaleidoscope of changing, glittering colors to create a take on the style that is sunlit —- it’s melodies life-affirming and hopeful, matching the mood set by that glorious cover illustration. Part of this album’s strength is how the band utilizes space and even silence as an integral part of their compositional approach, such as on the epic “Zephyr”. Individual instruments ring on their own, notes drifting off into silent voids, all with a sense of emotive purpose rather than just a technique to build tension or anticipation. This is incredibly difficult to pull off this successfully, most bands relying on the opposite approach, to reinforce their songs with walls of sound. And to be sure, these aren’t songs on Glow in the traditional sense —- Countless Skies rarely traffic in hooks or anything resembling traditional verse/bridge/chorus song structures. Moments of beauty are bountiful but fleeting, such as the old school In Flames-ian acoustic guitar drop-off before the four minute mark in “Tempest”. Clean vocalist Phil Romeo’s impassioned exultations on that track and the awesome “Glow – Part 2: Awakening” are a revelation, equal parts Ville Friman and part Ross Jennings (although I’ve been told by a few people that he reminds them of Devin Townsend and now I can’t unhear that). This is an album that sounds effortlessly natural, again making me think just how well suited it’s cover art turned out to be because that simply is the image that this music puts in my mind. Fading afternoon sunlight against a spread of clouds in the distance, and in that visual a sense of momentary peace and resolution.

3.   Décembre Noir – The Renaissance Of Hope:

Living up to the band’s name, this was a late year discovery for me, something we played recently on the MSRcast and has proven to be one of the most compelling releases of the year. Germany’s Décembre Noir traffic in thoughtfully written, deep and dark melodic death-doom. In a year with armfuls of death-doom releases, including a new Draconian album, it’s a bit of a stunner to say that a relative unknown has released the highest calibur release among them, but I think that’s exactly what happened. And for a album that can rightfully be described as melodic, this is a shockingly brutal and violent affair, built with slabs of tortured riffs stacked roughly against one another, while vocalist Lars Dotzauer growl-barks throughout like a man possessed. These songs are written in a way that eschews traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus formatting, coming across more like passages and movements. But for their lack of typical structure, they don’t lack for memorability or even something resembling hooks, such as the repeating lead guitar motif that haunts the latter half of “Hope/Renaissance”. The band flexes a touch of prog tendencies ala Novembers Doom on “Streets Of Transience”, and even demonstrates a little straightforward heavy metal thrust during the mid-song bridge shift, with a mighty lone riff propelling things towards an awesome, headbanging sequence. The MVP here is drummer Kevin Kleinschmidt, whose unorthodox timing and unpredictable patterns are a crucial factor in the excitement level running throughout this album. I’d even go as far as to say this is the best overall drumming I’ve heard on any metal album this year, it’s that important to conveying the sheer rage and spittle-flying madness being conveyed here. Late release date be damned, this album will captivate you on first listen, and that’s why it’s so high on this list.

4.   Unleash The Archers – Abyss:

Proof that their 2017 year end list topping album Apex wasn’t just a fluke, Unleash The Archers returned this year with what is likely a far more compelling album as a whole. I say that fully aware that I’m placing Abyss three spots lower here, but that’s more due to circumstances beyond its control (namely the three albums above being released this year), and as I said in my initial review for the album, Apex had higher high points (songs like the title track and “The Matriarch”), whereas Abyss is more on an even keel throughout —- one of satisfyingly excellent songwriting tied together with the introduction of heavy layers of spacey, campy sci-fi synths. The band’s ultimately wise decision was to not attempt to replicate Apex in the slightest, to decidedly step away from its thrashier sound profile and aggressive songwriting and head boldly in a new direction. Sure there are moments of extremity found here and there, the near blastbeat percussion on “Legacy” or the furious, coulda been on Apex “Soulbound”, but they are exceptions. Continuing the storyline of the Matriarch and the Immortal’s struggle except in the expanse of outer space instead of the gritty earthen wild, allowed the band to justify adding colorful, psychedelic layers of synths to their sound, to slow down the tempos and temper their straightforward metallic attack to create some rich diversity in their songwriting output. It resulted in gems like “Through Stars”, as unorthodox a song they’ve penned to date, but one that illustrates this approach perfectly with a Beach Boys-esque harmonized chorus. There’s serious 80s Heart vibes on the sparkly power ballad “Carry The Flame”, where guitarist Andrew Kingsley delivers some awesome lead vocals alongside Brittney Hayes in an pairing that makes me think of Nightwish with Marco Hietala. The cumulative effective of all these experiments and risks taken was demonstrating that the band had grown confident enough in their songwriting abilities to trust they’d deliver memorable tunes despite changing up their color palette and brush strokes a bit. As it turns out, Unleash the Archers didn’t just get lucky on Apex, they were simply getting started on building their artistic legacy.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

5.   Magnum – The Serpent Rings:

Some may raise their eyebrows at the inclusion of Magnum here, not only because this was one of those incredibly early January releases that might be forgotten due to the time distortion of the pandemic, but also because Magnum is ostensibly a hard rock band. I’ll contest however that there’s enough metallic edge to their current sound to bend around any genre limitations, and not to mention they are a central influence on artists like Avantasia and much of the more AOR-inclined wing of European power metal. Vocalist Bob Catley is of course a seemingly perennial guest on recent Avantasia releases and tours, and in a returning of the favor, Tobias Sammet was a guest on their last record, the excellent Lost On The Road To Eternity. Magnum have steadily been releasing quality records for the past ten years, but it was on that album where they really found some fresh inspiration, and that well must’ve been deep because it’s resulted in the follow-up being their finest album in over twenty years. This is some of guitarist/songwriter Tony Clarkin’s finest work, delivering an album with no duds and a host of absolute gems, starting with the best songs listee “Where Are You Eden?” with its rich, ornate string arrangements. Bob Catley is as ageless as ever, but he’s pure magic on when given incredible melodies to work with as on the heart-aching gypsy balladry of “The Last One On Earth” (it’s lyrics as foreshadowing of the impending lockdown/isolation as anything released shortly before the pandemic), or the stately quasi-power metal of “The Archway Of Tears”. The entire first half of this album in fact is a murders row of to-be classics, and this from a band with their two principal members over 70 years old. If that’s not a motivating kick in the backside, what is?

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

6.   Falconer – From A Dying Ember:

The swan song of one of the truly great, genre expanding power metal bands borne in the original Golden Age of Power Metal™, From A Dying Ember is as fine a send off from the band to their fans and the metal world as can be imagined. It’s their most classic sounding Falconer album since Northwind, being molded after their first two classic albums, and not quite as heavy as 2008’s Among Beggars and Thieves or the all-Swedish sung Armod. Guitarist and songwriter Stefan Weinerhall set out to create the most Falconer-ish Falconer album he possibly could as a finale, taking aim to cover all the touchstones of styles and song types the band has explored over the years. That kind of bold ambition usually results in disappointment, but to his credit he nailed it —- we were gifted the best songs listee in “Desert Dreams”, an uptempo cut reminiscent of “Mindtraveller”. We also got wonderfully inspired songs loaded with the band’s penchant for infusing medieval folk melodies such as the awesome “In Regal Attire”, with one of the band’s best choruses to date. In that same vein was also the heart wrenching balladry of “Rejoice The Adorned”, a medieval tinged vocal melody led ballad cut from the same cloth as classics like “Portals Of Light” and “Long Gone By”. When I first listened to it, I idly wondered with some trepidation if this was the last time we’d be hearing Mathias Blad’s vocals on any recorded output, and that I’d even settle for recordings of his theater work in the future. He has had one of the most unique vocal approaches that any metal vocalist has ever delivered, one that is firmly committed to his theatrical stage singing style that he performs in his day job, never amplifying it to fit into a metal mold and entirely devoid of any metal vocalist influences. Weinerhall has quietly put together a resume that places him in the pantheon of all-time great songwriters in the genre, and indeed his folk music infusion was genre bending in itself. Falconer are going out as legends, and this album was for me a celebration of the nearly two decades I’ve been a fan.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

7.   Boisson Divine – La Halha:

The most euphoric, spirit lifting surprise of the year, Boisson Divine’s La Halha appeared on my radar via the good people in the r/PowerMetal community who are always sourcing unorthodox stuff that you wouldn’t expect a bunch of people who argue over what Blind Guardian album is the best to pull out of their collective back pocket (btw it’s Nightfall guys). Boisson Divine can be classified as folk metal, sourcing that aspect of their sound from their French Gascony roots which serves to set them apart from the subgenre’s usual geographical musical influences. And were it not for translations, I would not understand what these songs are speaking about (they sing in French and a regional language called Occitan), but the band makes it clear on their Bandcamp description blurb what they’re often singing about: legends, songs to the land, rural solidarity, feasts, traditional songs… rugby even. They marry all this with an ample amount of trad/power melodicism and musicianship, with a sprinkle of punk rock enthusiasm particularly in their often group sung lead vocals. And they write energetic songs that are loaded with hooks that transcended language via insanely catchy vocal melodies, such as on the album highlights “La Sicolana”, “Rei de Suèda”, and best songs listee “Libertat”. I mentioned in my original review for this months back that these songs were without anger —- and that’s something that drew me to this album time and again throughout the year. When it seemed like every minute was consumed with toxic moods and emotions, La Halha was an hour long escape where even the language barrier didn’t matter.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2020)

8.   Green Carnation – Leaves Of Yesteryear:

Norway’s Green Carnation returned after a fourteen year hiatus with one of the most cerebral yet headbanging albums of the year in Leaves of Yesteryear. And in truth, this was really my first experience with the band’s music, this album coming my way via Spotify’s playlists back in May. The band plays a vein of progressive metal that is similar in influences to what Opeth and Enslaved are doing now, except while those two bands channel Camel and Pink Floyd as influences respectively, Green Carnation seem to get their inspiration from heavier, more rockin’ sources like Deep Purple and Uli Jon Roth era Scorpions. That’s already a far more appealing starting point for me, and that they write incredible songs is of course what makes this album worth talking about at the end of the year. It’s five song tracklist may seem appallingly short, but these are mostly lengthier songs that are gradually unfolding musical thrill rides, such as the fifteen minute “My Dark Reflections Of Life And Death”, a song that is built on a series of alternately headbanging riffs and meticulous spans of quiet, atmospheric tension building. Vocalist Kjetil Nordhus (also of Tristania fame) is a key draw of this album, his smooth yet hazy singing voice capable of bringing an element of raw emotion in ache and melancholy to these songs. He shines on the album closing Sabbath cover of “Solitude” (yes there’s only four original songs on here but trust me, it’s not an EP), his approach landing in that misty, smokey territory that reminds me slightly of Mikael Akerfeldt during the Steven Wilson producer years. In my original review for this album, I commended it’s overall listenability, and that opinion still stands —- this is one of those metal records that transcends subgenre barriers and should be essential listening for anyone who likes a heavy riff or two.

9.   Well Of Night – The Lower Planes Of Self-Abstraction:

It was my goal way back at the beginning of the year to make an effort to listen to more black metal once again after really stepping away from the subgenre for the past couple years. I pretty much whiffed on that plan once the world went south and I found myself stuck inside all day building the Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, but what little black metal I did search out I made count. Case in point is debut album by Dayton, Ohio’s Well Of Night (such an unusual geographic location for a black metal band is by now not all that remarkable, given black metal’s permeating reach these days), who eschew the genre’s move towards more murkier, “post” drenched sound worlds in favor of hearkening to more traditional roots. Here they channeled second wave Norwegian black metal ala Emperor’s blistering wrath with Dimmu’s skillfully written song arrangements ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, resulting in a sound that was richly melodic without the need for layers of orchestra and cinematic symphonics. On tracks like “Apex and Eschaton” and “Black Alder Sacristy”, they utilize major rhythmic shifts and undulating currents of audible bass (in black metal?! Get out of here!) to create texture and space within the fabric of layers of ringing tremolo riffs. There’s an intensity and at times, violence to this album that is staggering, and it’s made possible as a result of the band’s decision to aim for the most crisp, clear, instrument separating mix that I’ve heard on a black metal album in years. It resulted in one of those undeniably compelling listens, one that caught me off guard and had me transfixed.

10.   Eshtadur – From The Abyss:

Colombia’s Eshtadur released the most creative, expressively diverse extreme metal album of the year in From The Abyss, a merger of melodic death metal with symphonic black metal swirls and even wild hard rock. This blurring of genre lines within the context of an album and even in individual songs themselves is what makes Eshtadur one of the most intriguing and exciting extreme metal bands to emerge in the last decade, something they started to fully develop on the cheekily titled Stay Away From Evil And Get Close To Me. Vocalist/guitarist Jorg August is the band’s principle member, songwriter and all around visionary, and his approach is to embrace any and all aspects of his influences and distill them into his horror tinged elixir. As a vocalist he is versatile, veering from delivering deeply guttural vocals over some very Septic Flesh-reminiscent death metal to a metalcore influenced scream over a piercing tremolo riff sequence. Despite all the extremity, these are highly discernable songs, forgoing a wall of sound approach in favor of clear instrument separation, a balanced mix, and crisply recorded guitars so that the melodies here are bright and memorable. They’re also catchy as hell, and it’s not even a surprise when a rockin’ cover of Firehouse’s “All She Wrote” featuring Myrath’s Zaher Zorgati on guest vocals appears mid-album. It’s one of the best cross genre covers you’ll ever hear, and despite its bewildering, surreal placement in the middle of such a brutal, ferocious album —- it actually makes sense and provides context to the hookiness of the rest of the record. This is an album that flew under the radar this year but deserves to be heard, precisely because this band is unafraid of it’s unconventional influences, even something as polarizing as pop metal.

The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2020 // Part One: The Songs

I’ve never been as relieved and ready to pen a year end list as I am now, for this most grueling and daunting of years. Welcome to part one of the annual best of feature, once again focusing on the top ten songs of the year with the albums list coming soon in part two. For this songs list, I don’t think it’s that surprising to state that this year more than any other, mood had a lot to do with what ended up here. You’ll notice a distinct lack of anything particularly extreme, and that’s not by coincidence. It’s only recently, as in the past few months, that I’ve started to listen to a lot of extreme metal again, because during those early pandemic months, I just needed it’s diametric opposite. So it’s perhaps accurate in saying that this list might have been ever so slightly different had 2020 been a normal year, although I suppose that could be said for so many things about life in general. Reminiscing aside, like anyone else I’m not sorry to see the backside of this year as we collectively slam the door behind it, but it’s worth remembering that it did yield some truly magical music amid the chaos.

1.   Seven Spires – “Succumb” (from the album Emerald Seas)

Such is the magnificence of Seven Spires’ Emerald Seas that no less than four songs from it could have occupied this top slot for 2020, but the most charmingly gorgeous and daringly adventurous of them all was the monumental “Succumb”. Built on regal guitar melodies and a restrained yet punchy orchestral arrangement, “Succumb” is largely a vehicle for the devastatingly masterful songwriting and performance of vocalist Adrienne Cowan. She’s versatile and adept at seemingly everything; capable of fiercely abrasive harsh vox, gritty rock n’ roll belting, and alternately gorgeous clean singing reminiscent of Sara Squadrani’s heartwarming, crystalline tones. Here she manages to merge the latter two in a swaggering, heroic vocal performance so convincing and passionate you’d swear she’s singing it while swinging from the rigging of a ship. And her lyrics are pure poetry, full of inventive phrasing and evocative imagery, the chorus boasting the most striking moment —- “…And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone…”. Her talent as a lyricist shows her direct influence from the mighty Roy Khan, and like the master himself, she knows how to marry those words to unforgettable melodies so as to make their story come to life every time we listen.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

2.   Fellowship – “Glint” (from the album Fellowship)

The lead off track from the debut EP of UK power metal upstarts Fellowship, “Glint” is the reason why you’ll find so many of the peeps at r/PowerMetal convinced these guys are going to be the subgenre’s saving grace when their highly anticipated new album comes out (hopefully in 2021). While I personally think the state of power metal is more than fine, thriving actually, “Glint” is the first song I’ve seen that’s managed to collectively excite dewy eyed optimists like myself and bitter, cynical curmudgeons alike. It’s brilliance is self-evident, the band’s core identity and style presented in it’s light-footed orchestral sweep and sway, it’s classic-era Sonata Arctica guitarwork and vocal-centric melodicism. The whole band is deserving of praise for their work here, but I want to single out vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry in particular for his unconventional and inspired approach towards his lyrics, which are definitely a cut above the standard power metal fare. The self-empowerment theme running through this song, exemplified in that unforgettable refrain (“I’ve always been worthy…”) has certainly been expressed in the genre before, but rarely so effectively and directly. And there’s something so right and timely about that directness —- we all needed to hear this song this year.

3.   Mors Principium Est – “Lost In A Starless Aeon” (from the album Seven)

Striking like a guided missile, this absolute masterpiece from the new two man lineup Mors Principium Est album shot it’s way onto this list upon first listen. Why? Because of those incredibly melodic, almost neo-classical leads, rippling along a classic melodeath riff storming right out of the gate, and the catchiest little double figure-tail pattern I’ve heard in ages in that chorus. The solo midway through is built on beautiful ascending and descending patterns, a flurry of dizzying wizardry. Guitarist Andy Gillion delivered his finest songwriting moment for the band here, not only staying true to the band’s signature sound but refining it into being one of the greatest slices of melodeath to ever grace my ears. This is not only an instant classic banger, it’s emblematic of why when melodeath is done right, and I mean absolutely right, it’s the most viscerally exciting and satisfying subgenre of metal.

4.   Unleash The Archers – “Abyss” (from the album Abyss)

The undeniable centerpiece of a spectacular album, the title track for Abyss proved that “Apex” wasn’t a fluke, that the band had developed the compositional skills to handle long pieces with skill and dexterity. This is a seven minute song that always feels like a three to four minute listen, usually with me getting irritated that it’s already over and I have to go back and click it again (the brazen inconvenience of it all). The marriage of synths with the band’s rocketing power metal was central in why the new album worked so well, and that can be heard as a microcosm here. And really, Brittney’s vocals subsume everything to her will anyway, her powerful performance here artistically depicted by the all consuming black hole in the video above.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

5.   Judicator – “Gloria” (from the album Let There Be Nothing)

Sometimes it doesn’t have to be that complicated to get on the best songs list. A few seriously crunchy, headbanging riffs, a fantastic vocal melody and an unforgettable call and response chorus —- “Gloria” had it all. The added dimension of John Yelland’s incredibly Hansi-ian vocal tone is one of the major selling points of Judicator’s sound for sure, but this was one of those songs where Judicator married their influences to something more inborn, a further refining of their own sound. The guest vocals by Mercedes Victoria were an inspired touch, utilizing female vocals in the most aggressive passages rather than in a typical beauty and the beast setup. Guitarist Tony Cordisco left the band after this album’s release, but hopefully the new lineup has a few more “Gloria’s” left in the bag.

6.   Falconer – “Desert Dreams” (from the album From A Dying Ember)

Falconer guitarist Stefan Weinerhall penned the dreamily sweet melancholy ballad “Rejoice the Adorned” to serve as the emotional gut punch of their swan song album From A Dying Ember, and it certainly lived up to expectations. But for me, the last Falconer album’s most poignant tune was actually the second track on the record, the storming, attacking “Desert Dreams”. Not only was it cut from the same cloth as the band’s first two classic albums, all drama molded into furiously uptempo hard rock riffing with medieval-tinged melodic twists, but Mathias Blad does that effortless thing where his vocals stay at their own chosen tempo, regardless of the chaos erupting around him. It’s such an iconic sounding slice of classic Falconer —- and I’ll straight up admit that when Blad comes in with his layered harmony vocals around the 3:35 mark, I get all the feels. Aching bittersweet feels.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

7.   Sorceror – “Lamenting Of The Innocent” (from the album Lamenting Of The Innocent)

It’s rare that the longest track on an album winds up being it’s most spectacular song, but the title track to Sorcerer’s newest album fits that bill. A slowly, softly building atmospheric epic, “Lamenting Of The Innocent” is a journey unto itself, with distinct sections with separate melodic motifs that are equally compelling. It’s a spiritual cousin to the glorious “Unbearable Sorrow” off 2017’s The Crowning Of The Fire King, which also made that year’s best songs list (also the longest song on that album, must be #JustSorcererThings). The punishing, brutal vocal led bridges are contrasted with Kristian Niemann’s ever breathtaking swirling, hypnotic lead guitar melodies draping the chorus —- his clear tone and emotional phrasing makes you feel like you’re floating into the night air.

8.   Magnum – “Where Are You Eden?” (from the album The Serpent Rings)

This majestic, surging gem from Magnum’s early January album The Serpent Rings is emblematic of the renewed spirit and vigor the band has found since 2018’s Lost On The Road To Eternity. Built on Rick Benton’s tension raising keyboard orchestration and some fairly aggro, border-line metallic riffing from Tony Clarkin, this song resembles something closer to Avantasia than the British rock that Magnum is typically associated with. And of course Bob Catley’s participation with that band recently adds fuel to that fire, but there’s truly something positively Tobias Sammet-ian about the heightened arc that Catley rides with his performance on this explosive chorus.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

9.   Dynazty – “Hologram” (from the album The Dark Delight)

Sometimes all it takes is to be at the right place at the right time… and to be a glorious power ballad of course. I can’t tell you how much I listened to this song around the early weeks of the pandemic, this album having come out in early April when everything was falling apart. I reviewed The Dark Delight among other albums as a means to distraction, but “Hologram”, with its comforting piano intro, plush orchestral arrangement, and gloriously skyrocketing chorus seemed to stick with me long after. It was one of those songs I kept on heavy rotation particularly around the April-June months for it’s uplifting, mood enlivening qualities. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that songs with that kind of power are more valuable than gold.

10.   Boisson Divine – “Libertat” (from the album La Halha)

The euphoric, life-affirming single we needed in late-May is the capstone of one of the year’s most surprising, out of left-field albums. Boisson Divine’s blend of Celtic-punk spirit married to power metal guitars and their own Gascony folk-music DNA is honed to a razor’s edge here with an unforgettable hook. If the music video doesn’t lay it out pretty clearly, this is a song celebrating life in a fundamentally joyful spirit. And this song’s timing, post/during lockdowns was much needed, its chorus translated as “But one day you will escape / And you will find your freedom”. The band helpfully added English subtitles for this song’s music video, but I suspect most of us understood what they were singing about anyway.

(Also appears on: The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2020)

The Power!: New Music From Demons & Wizards, Seven Spires, and More!

The slow start to the year in January quickly evaporated with an onslaught in February, and we’ve gotten some big names in the mix too (well, relatively speaking of course). Chief among them is the fifteen years plus in the waiting third Demons & Wizards album, Hansi Kursch and Jon Schaffer’s side-project that has taken on an almost legendary air in the interim period. You heard it in the murmuring crowd on their recent North American tour, and I felt it myself —- a sort of disbelief that we were seeing these two major figures in power metal history standing onstage together. That’s a lot to live up to, not only with the show itself, but with an album that we’ve heard more than a few estimated release dates for during that time. We’re also getting new releases from Finland’s genre-bending Amberian Dawn, who are stretching the limits of power metal to its poppiest extreme yet, and of course the once power metal supergroup Serious Black that’s more of a honed in melodic metal vehicle for the mighty Urban breed. Lastly, there’s the sophomore album by Seven Spires, a band who is on two major support slots in North America this year for very relatively different audiences. Intrigued? I thought so!

Demons & Wizards – III:

I guess I’ve put this off long enough. This review was originally going to be one of the long ones, you know, my 1200 plus word excursions going in depth on an album’s backstory, details, and hidden nuances. Forget that. I simply can’t summon the interest. I’ll get right to the point here, and it gives me absolutely no pleasure to write the following —- but this album bored me and is a chore to listen to. An absolute chore. I’m gravely disappointed. Not only because of the pedigree of the two musicians involved; not only because of the precedent set by their prior two albums —- one of which was pretty good (and sounding better by the minute) while the other I’d consider a power metal classic —- but also because I was so hyped for this thing after witnessing the band live in Dallas last August on their North American tour. That was a great show, and to hear songs like “Tear Down The Wall” and “Fiddler On The Green” in person was a dream I’d never imagined being possible come true. As a result, I allowed myself the luxury of getting hyped for this album, and yeah, I suppose the near fifteen year wait also added a bit to that. There’s been a lot written and spoken about that span of time in between this album, the creatively titled III, and 2005’s Touched By The Crimson King (now that’s an album title!), and it should be made clear to everyone that it had no impact on adding anything of value to the songwriting that went into these new songs. Jon and Hansi’s day jobs kept Demons & Wizards on the sideline until they could eventually find an opportunity to carve out a block of time to devote to it. The reasoning is rational enough on the surface, but I’m starting to wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just working on material slowly through the years, passing ideas back and forth until they finally accumulated an album’s worth of material. Would we really care if any of the songs had begun in 2006 as opposed to being recent creations, entirely “fresh” and new? I’m guessing no as long as they were good.

So what’s wrong with this album then? I’m afforded the luxury of being vague here, simply because this one criticism applies to nearly everything on here barring a moment or two, but this album sounds entirely disconnected. The debut album began as an in-person collaboration between Jon and Hansi, and the limits of technology at the time forced it to largely remain that way, despite the pair working on it via mailed recordings as well. The follow-up had to be done under a tighter time schedule, and Schaffer’s gone on record as stating it as a reason for his slight dissatisfaction with the overall result. But whereas the songs on the debut really felt like they were cooked up together, the result being a natural fusion of the two songwriter’s tendencies and styles, Crimson King felt divided due to being largely written separately by Jon and Hansi in geographic isolation. I used to think that was the album’s achilles heel, but as the years have gone on, I think it actually worked to its benefit. To me, half of that albums songs sound like Schaffer led tunes, and the other half Kursch’s —- meaning that some songs lean hard in an Iced Earth direction (“Terror Train”, “Crimson King”, “Seize The Day”, “Dorian”), whereas others are clearly more Blind Guardian tinged (“Beneath These Waves”, “Wicked Witch”, “Love’s Tragedy Asunder”, “Down Where I Am”, “Lunar Lament”). The result was a largely strong collection of songs, because each of the songwriter’s hard leans towards their strengths ensured that at least the melodies would be affecting. It would be inaccurate to say that Jon and Hansi each wrote half of Crimson King on their own, these were collaborations after all and Jon did pen music for all the tracks, and Hansi did write his own vocal melodies for all the songs. I’m more referring to the songwriting structures present in all those songs, as they provide strong context clues as to what came to dominate a song first in its early songwriting stages, the riff or the vocal melody?

Fast forward to III, where it’s clear that the riff came first, always and to a fault. As confirmed by the dozens of interviews Jon and Hansi have done for the album, they largely wrote this album geographically isolated from one another just like they did for Crimson King. This time however, I think they made a critical error in the division of responsibilities in the songwriting department. Simply put, they got too diplomatic for their own good. According to those interviews, Jon wrote the music, Dropboxed the tracks to Hansi, who would write vocal melodies for them. I’m certain there was some passing the songs back and forth after that point, but given that these hooks never really get that “lift” like we’re expecting and the verses just aimlessly merge into the refrains like a texting driver at a rush hour intersection, I’m not 100% certain of that either. When Jon writes for Iced Earth, he builds a song with vocal melodies in his mind as well, and will communicate a sketch of that idea to his vocalist (who may or may not have the leeway to change things). Of course Iced Earth songs are melodic, but they’re largely chiseled that way via shaping the tone and direction of riffs, not pure melodies in the sense that say… Tobias Sammet writes Avantasia’s songs on keyboards first. When Hansi writes for Blind Guardian, he and Andre work in tandem, sometimes with the vocal melody coming first, sometimes with a guitar melody coming first. Point is that their work is more melodically guided, and riffs and heaviness are worked in around that. Listening to III, I get the feeling that Jon didn’t want to tread on Hansi’s boots, and created riff driven songs with some melodic structures, but largely left space for Hansi to guide things with his vocal melodies. Subsequently, Hansi was given half-finished tracks that he had to figure out how to shoehorn lead vocal melodies therein, and likely didn’t pass any of them back to Jon and say “Yeah I have nothing for this one”. If you’re followed this train of thought this far, you might be of the opinion that I’m overthinking this —- you’re likely right, but I had to dig deep to potentially understand why, oh why I haven’t been able to get into this album after umpteen listens. I might even be wrong on all of the rationale above, but it’s all I can offer by way of explanation right now.

There were a few worthwhile moments, the entirety of “Wolves In Winter” being the best song on offer here and comparable to the band’s work on their prior two records. A near perfect merging of the heavy riff first approach with a classic Hansi vocal melody during the refrain results in a stellar track, at once unique with its primal, grunting, rhythmic tick and familiar in the sense that Hansi sounds powerful and confident as we’ve heard him countless times before. And I’m somewhat partial to most of “Diabolic”, which has elements that drag for sure (the long intro and outro for starters), but also displays one of the more convincing riff structures on the album in terms of pairing intensity with a melodic motif. I think there’s a good idea somewhere in “New Dawn”, where Hansi captures my attention every now and then, particularly his “I cleanse it with fire” lyrical motif towards the end (if only the rest of the song could match his intensity). I’m also in the minority in being somewhat into “Midas Disease”, not for its dumb, mawkish AC/DC tribute inherent in it’s plodding hard rock rhythms, but for Hansi’s spot on Blackie Lawless impersonation throughout, sounding for all the world like a distant echo from The Headless Children. As for the rest of these songs… I’m just baffled. I have thumped my head against them for countless listens now and am coming away with nothing but bruises and a growing loathing for the mere act of listening to this album. Out of respect for Jon and Hansi, I will shelve this for awhile and return to it in a year or two’s time to give it another shot. Reinforcing my theory that things may have been too diplomatic all around for this album, both Jim Morris and Charlie Bauerfiend were involved in the production at some stage, which just seems weird. The prescription for the next time around, should there be one, might be for Jon to largely write half the songs on the album and Hansi to nearly entirely pen the other half —- or, heck, here’s a thought, book a flight and get in a room and write the entire album together for once.

Seven Spires – Emerald Seas:

You might have seen the name Seven Spires listed on a few high profile tours this year and idly wondered who and what they were all about. Their biggest claim to fame heading into the release of their sophomore album Emerald Seas is that their vocalist/keyboardist Adrienne Cowan was the backing vocalist on Avantasia’s recent Moonglow world tour. Her role on that tour was certainly the reason why I first noticed the band and checked out their 2017 debut album Solveig when that tour was announced. I came away thinking it was an interesting record that flashed some nice ideas here and there, the kind of thing that a few albums down the road could see Seven Spires hone into a well defined sound and deliver a possibly great album (provided they could stay together for that time). The last thing I expected was that the band was talented enough to make that leap in fully realizing their sound and songwriting approach a mere one album later. So much for the sophomore slump, because Emerald Seas might just be the most exciting, creative, and thoughtfully written album we see this year. I’ve been stunned and knocked sideways by how much I love this album, and I’ve actively had to force myself to take days off from listening to it so I could squeeze in listening time for other releases. You might have noticed that Seven Spires is going to be opening for Insomnium this spring as well as Amaranthe in the fall, and they’re able to fit into both slots quite well because they blend together progressive symphonic power metal and a blackened vocal take on melo-death.

Cowan has the vocal talent to make these genre blendings sound seamless, transitioning between three voices —- a soaring, heartwarming crystalline tone that can move to a gritty, belting rock n’ roll voice, and of course go deeper in a grim vocal that reminds me strongly of Dani Filth’s midrange delivery. You hear this right away in “Ghost of A Dream”, where she displays all three approaches within the context of a handful of ultra-memorable vocal melody structures. This is also the song where you might be wondering what other band’s vibes you’re being reminded of, and the answer on the tip of your brain is Kamelot. There’s a depth to Seven Spires musicality illustrated here and throughout the album that brings to mind Kamelot’s Epica era. I’m thinking here specifically of the Spanish-sounding acoustic guitar figures that flare up alongside Cowan’s lithe vocals in the verses, as well as the elegant accordion style adornment in the background recall Roy Khan’s narrative vocal masterpiece in “Lost And Damned” off that album. Guitarist Jack Kosto also has a Thomas Youngblood-ian sense of how to keep his riffs muscular but largely simple when set against the backdrop of Cowan’s grandiose, cinematic orchestral keyboard backdrops. This artful approach to symphonic metal yields songs like “Every Crest”, where an almost Broadway styled vocal melody can swing suddenly into a brutal, utteringly convincing harsh vocal passage with a Hans Zimmer inspired slant to the orchestral arrangement. During the former, bassist Peter de Reyna shows off some nimble jazzy structures figures underneath Cowan’s vocals, and alongside drummer Chris Dovas’ thoughtful battery and Kosto’s knack for neoclassical styled shredding and spectacular soloing, this band unexpectedly injects frequent doses of stunning technicality throughout the album. It’s a subtle detail, but it works to add a sense of vitality and boiling emotional swell to the album in the same way that Dialith achieved with their infusion of gritty, intense melodic death riffs to their symphonic metal oeuvre.

This is the rare album with no weak songs, nothing resembling filler, but there are a couple of absolute gems that shine greater than the others, namely “Unmapped Darkness” and “Succumb”. The former is the grandest and boldest example of the band’s almost effortless swagger at pulling off the arms wide, cinematic expansiveness that its hopeful lyrics speak to. Cowan claims Roy Khan as one of her biggest influences, and her lyric writing abilities come pretty damn close to his in terms of diction, imagery, and phrasing. She’s really friggin good at this stuff. Take the chorus of “Succumb”, easily the catchiest moment on the album, where she eschews generic ideas in favor of “And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone / And I pray one day our stars align / So I might hold you one more time…”. That’s Khan level poetic abilities on display, and you guys know how I feel about the master himself (I’m not making this comparison lightly). Consider me a Cowan lyrical fanboy now, because this album has captivated me on that level completely, telling a story about a seafarer and the beast that’s chasing him. Its rare that a storyline intrigues me on any level within a metal album, but there’s something charming and rare about the one that Cowan has sketched out here —- it’s allowed for the variety of moods and emotions displayed amidst the differing songwriting styles and approaches. To wit, the gorgeous moonlit piano ballad “Silvery Moon” is a personal favorite here, the kind of thing I’d more associate with a stage play rather than a symphonic metal band, but Cowan’s lyrics are heartbreakingly poignant, and paint an evocative series of pictures in my mind. I could go in detail about the lyrical gems scattered throughout this record, in addition to its unforgettable melodies, but I promised myself I’d keep this short —- also, this isn’t the last I’ll be writing about Emerald Seas this year…

Amberian Dawn – Looking For You:

I became a fan of Finland’s once symphonic metallers Amberian Dawn in 2015 with the release of Innuendo, not so much because of the band’s still present symphonic metal palette, but for the strange, inexplicable ABBA influences scattered throughout the album. It was an interesting moment to be introduced to the band, who were finding their way with the still relatively new vocalist Capri Virkkunen who joined one album prior, after the departure of longtime classically inclined singer Heidi Parviainen. Capri possessed an entirely different voice, more a velvety, sonorous pop-rock voice as opposed to anything resembling classical training. It was Amberian’s Tarja to Annette moment, and band founder/keyboardist/songwriter Tuomas Seppälä saw an opening to move away from a symphonic metal direction that he’d run with for four albums now with varying results and modest public interest, towards a more overtly pop driven approach inspired by the Swedish quartet. Capri had previously spent some time singing in an ABBA cover band, in addition to trying out for Eurovision a couple times, so her pop credentials were rooted in that classical European dramatic mode that made those ABBA hits so emotionally engaging. It also helped that her vocals sounded like a perfect blending of Agnetha and Frida, from tone to the clarity of her diction and phrasing. She and Seppälä seemed to be of one mind in this, because they increased the amount of pop-driven songwriting on the 2017 follow-up Darkness of Eternity. It seemed inevitable that they’d at some point have to just abandon the band’s symphonic metal roots… clearly they were having more fun heading in the opposite direction.

Fast forward to Looking For You, Capri’s fourth proper album with the band, and they’d pretty much done exactly that. Oh there’s still a nod to their symphonic metal past, on “Symphony Nr. 1 Part 3 – Awakening”, an entertaining to say the least duet with Fabio Lione which is actually the third installment in this song-suite over the past couple Capri fronted albums. But that one cut aside, Seppälä goes all in on the ABBA-worship this time, with the rest of the album working in that sophisticated pop songwriting mode. Capri is the star throughout, her mature, resonant voice clearly made for the theatrical, drama-rich lyrical delivery this kind of classic pop influence requires. The apex here is the title track, a sugary dance-beat fuelled pop confection built around a finely defined vocal melody that weaves effortlessly from verse to bridge to chorus. Capri’s the ringleader here, her urgency in tone is the cue for the extra crunch from the guitars, and really the band as a whole. There’s a very true to seventies-ABBA era pop approach to the lyrics here, with vague, hopeful sentiments expressed through a staging of a very specific scene —- “Late at night / Wondering where you are tonight / I feel the sadness in my heart”. I hear shades of “Knowing Me, Knowing You” and “The Day Before You Came” influencing this particular lyrical approach that Seppälä and Capri are writing with. It continues on “Two Blades”, another ultra catchy uptempo gem, where the narrator speaks about her relationship that is all smiles to the world around them, yet crumbling on the inside: “They don’t know how it feels to be / Forgotten in the hours of the night / Hiding in the shadows and being lost / And left behind for a lifetime”. I love the juxtaposition at the 2:38 mark of that satisfyingly crunchy riff sliding beneath Capri crooning “I am, I am the sun…”. This is pop songwriting at its classicist best, with a lyrical approach that is inviting and universal in its portraits of desperation and urgency. Its the kind of thing I find lacking in a lot of modern pop music (with some notable exceptions).

So maybe you’re thinking at this point, c’mon Pigeon, ABBA-metal? Why does this have to be a thing? And my answer is a very simple, “Why not?”. Here’s the thing about Amberian Dawn laid out bluntly, they’re simply more interesting and unique since they’ve been exploring music in this vein than they ever were as a symphonic metal band. I’m not saying there’s nothing of value in those older albums, but it’s generally stuff that feels overdone to the point of exhaustion. And here’s another thing —- no one, and I mean no one, is writing pop music in this classic ABBA mold, not even in the pop music world. As an outright fan of that band, I welcome new music in that vein, particularly if its as delightfully faithful, convincing, and skillfully executed as Amberian Dawn are managing to do. There’s plenty of bands out there doing symphonic metal, some are even pulling it off rather well (see Dialith’s Extinction Six), but only Amberian Dawn is giving me the sugar high I crave with sophisti-pop hooks ala a re-worked/refreshed “Cherish My Memory”. It also serves to give the band a unique identity, something that they had trouble finding in their previous style. Capri has a unique voice within metal, a classic pop voice that she’s used to develop a stage career in addition to her vocation as a music teacher. In that vein she’s sympatico with Falconer’s Mathias Blad, another theatrical stage performer who moonlights as a singer in a metal band, using a non-metallic voice to create something really unique and special within metal. To really drive the point home, Amberian Dawn cheekily laid down a cover of the Swedish masters’ “Lay All Your Love On Me” in the middle of the tracklisting here, and not only is it a perfectly executed cover (immediately preferable to Avantasia’s), it’s a bold declaration of intent and a giant middle finger to anyone who’s thinking of throwing stones.

Serious Black – Suite 226:

So apparently I’m one of the few weirdos that actually thought Serious Black’s 2016 sophomore effort Mirrorworld was a fine slice of Euro-tinged power metal. I’ve read pretty much nothing but verbal abuse hurled towards it in the years since its release, from reviews I’ve gone back and read, to the fine folks on the r/PowerMetal subreddit having their daggers sharpened for it. I can see why those attacks would come at the expense of Mirrorworld’s follow-up, 2017’s Magic, although it too contained a few good tunes (I still stan “Binary Magic” and ” amidst the overall cringe on display), but I do have a theory as to why Serious Black has endured a brunt of negativity over the course of their entire existence. It largely has to do with their vocalist Urban breed, who is nearly universally beloved in the power metal community for his masterful work with Tad Morose and briefly, Bloodbound. On his defining work with those two bands, Urban sang over heavier, darker, far more metallic power metal than he does in Serious Black, which is a little closer to happy-boi Helloween and Freedom Call on the spectrum than it is to Khan-era Kamelot or say, Pyramaze. That’s not to say Serious Black is all sugary highs and syrupy sweet melodies, but there’s a slightly sunny-ish disposition streaking through their four albums in terms of melodic tone and sometimes even lyrical approach that I think a lot of Urban fans are put off by. It’s certainly not for any decline in the man’s vocal ability, because he still sounds as powerful and ageless as ever, but this band’s material does send his voice into sharply different directions than some are used to.

For those of us who are used to Urban in this context, we’re treated to a rebound record for Serious Black with Suite 226, a concept album about a mental patient locked in a psych ward (apparently). Largely gone are the weirdly pop-rock affectations of Magic, replaced instead by a welcome return of darkness and perhaps the most marked uptick in aggression in the band’s short history. Right out of the gate, “Let It Go” is the most Dave Mustaine-channeling that we’ve ever heard Urban, and with the blistering, furious riffing from Dominik Sebastian speeding along underneath, the whole thing sounds downright Megadeth-ian. That energy doesn’t dissipate heading into the first single “When The Stars Are Right”, which for all its loaded poppiness in that excellent chorus is still bookended by some dense riffing, and a tight rhythmic attack on the bottom end by bassist Mario Lochert and Ramy Ali on drums (who is a longtime veteran talent in the more obscure side of Euro power metal and a quality replacement for Alex Holzwarth). On a more mid-tempo cut like “Solitude Etude”, the band opts to employ a darker, more downcast mood along with Urban delivering a melancholic vocal melody. They do this again on the notably more poppy “Fate Of All Humanity”, and in lieu of straightforward aggression, the moodier, more introspective approach is still a welcome relief from what we can reasonably label as Serious Black’s default blue skies disposition. Urban delivers an unforgettable hook in the chorus here, and its still as poppy as power metal can get, but its a subdued sweetness, tempered by the lyrical concerns of the concept running through these lyrics.

And it’s strange, because I don’t think I picked up on this overall shift in mood and approach my first few listens through this album. I was here for Urban and the hooks, and we’re of course treated to those in spades, but it was deeper listening that revealed the aggression and darkness buried underneath. Take “Castiel”, arguably the album’s best cut and one of the finest songs the band has ever written, it’s built on major-minor chord dichotomy and a seriously swaggering chorus that owes more to classic heavy metal than Europower. I love the delay that Urban playfully tags onto the end of the second iteration of the chorus, making that slamming Accept-ian riff just hit you with full force when it breaks back in. There’s some heavyweight metallic grit happening in that tune but the addictiveness of the chorus really deafened me to it for the first few listens. The opposite happened on “Heaven Shall Burn”, an obviously heavy tune that is sneakily one of the strongest songs on the record, boasting a hook that’s slyly catchy despite its purposefully awkward approach. The most uplifting thing on the album is “Way Back Home” and amidst the downcast vibe it actually stands out just by its marked shift in tone alone. I’m more impressed by “We Still Stand Tall”, which is similarly more upbeat in tone and disposition, but is still underscored by a current of gritty heaviness anchoring it firmly to earth. The two songs that close out the album, “Come Home” and the title track swing us back to the darker side of the album, and they’re fine in that context, although I’m finding myself more liable to grow impatient with their slower, meandering sections and skip out of them. That minor complaint aside, I’m honestly surprised and maybe a little relieved that Serious Black found their footing again after such a worrying release. Give this one a few chances.

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