I’ve never been as relieved and ready to pen a year end list as I am now, for this most grueling and daunting of years. Welcome to part one of the annual best of feature, once again focusing on the top ten songs of the year with the albums list coming soon in part two. For this songs list, I don’t think it’s that surprising to state that this year more than any other, mood had a lot to do with what ended up here. You’ll notice a distinct lack of anything particularly extreme, and that’s not by coincidence. It’s only recently, as in the past few months, that I’ve started to listen to a lot of extreme metal again, because during those early pandemic months, I just needed it’s diametric opposite. So it’s perhaps accurate in saying that this list might have been ever so slightly different had 2020 been a normal year, although I suppose that could be said for so many things about life in general. Reminiscing aside, like anyone else I’m not sorry to see the backside of this year as we collectively slam the door behind it, but it’s worth remembering that it did yield some truly magical music amid the chaos.
1. Seven Spires – “Succumb” (from the album Emerald Seas)
Such is the magnificence of Seven Spires’ Emerald Seas that no less than four songs from it could have occupied this top slot for 2020, but the most charmingly gorgeous and daringly adventurous of them all was the monumental “Succumb”. Built on regal guitar melodies and a restrained yet punchy orchestral arrangement, “Succumb” is largely a vehicle for the devastatingly masterful songwriting and performance of vocalist Adrienne Cowan. She’s versatile and adept at seemingly everything; capable of fiercely abrasive harsh vox, gritty rock n’ roll belting, and alternately gorgeous clean singing reminiscent of Sara Squadrani’s heartwarming, crystalline tones. Here she manages to merge the latter two in a swaggering, heroic vocal performance so convincing and passionate you’d swear she’s singing it while swinging from the rigging of a ship. And her lyrics are pure poetry, full of inventive phrasing and evocative imagery, the chorus boasting the most striking moment —- “…And so I succumb to cinnamon, sweat, and rum / Laughing with stars in your eyes and your hair undone…”. Her talent as a lyricist shows her direct influence from the mighty Roy Khan, and like the master himself, she knows how to marry those words to unforgettable melodies so as to make their story come to life every time we listen.
2. Fellowship – “Glint” (from the album Fellowship)
The lead off track from the debut EP of UK power metal upstarts Fellowship, “Glint” is the reason why you’ll find so many of the peeps at r/PowerMetal convinced these guys are going to be the subgenre’s saving grace when their highly anticipated new album comes out (hopefully in 2021). While I personally think the state of power metal is more than fine, thriving actually, “Glint” is the first song I’ve seen that’s managed to collectively excite dewy eyed optimists like myself and bitter, cynical curmudgeons alike. It’s brilliance is self-evident, the band’s core identity and style presented in it’s light-footed orchestral sweep and sway, it’s classic-era Sonata Arctica guitarwork and vocal-centric melodicism. The whole band is deserving of praise for their work here, but I want to single out vocalist/lyricist Matthew Corry in particular for his unconventional and inspired approach towards his lyrics, which are definitely a cut above the standard power metal fare. The self-empowerment theme running through this song, exemplified in that unforgettable refrain (“I’ve always been worthy…”) has certainly been expressed in the genre before, but rarely so effectively and directly. And there’s something so right and timely about that directness —- we all needed to hear this song this year.
3. Mors Principium Est – “Lost In A Starless Aeon” (from the album Seven)
Striking like a guided missile, this absolute masterpiece from the new two man lineup Mors Principium Est album shot it’s way onto this list upon first listen. Why? Because of those incredibly melodic, almost neo-classical leads, rippling along a classic melodeath riff storming right out of the gate, and the catchiest little double figure-tail pattern I’ve heard in ages in that chorus. The solo midway through is built on beautiful ascending and descending patterns, a flurry of dizzying wizardry. Guitarist Andy Gillion delivered his finest songwriting moment for the band here, not only staying true to the band’s signature sound but refining it into being one of the greatest slices of melodeath to ever grace my ears. This is not only an instant classic banger, it’s emblematic of why when melodeath is done right, and I mean absolutely right, it’s the most viscerally exciting and satisfying subgenre of metal.
4. Unleash The Archers – “Abyss” (from the album Abyss)
The undeniable centerpiece of a spectacular album, the title track for Abyss proved that “Apex” wasn’t a fluke, that the band had developed the compositional skills to handle long pieces with skill and dexterity. This is a seven minute song that always feels like a three to four minute listen, usually with me getting irritated that it’s already over and I have to go back and click it again (the brazen inconvenience of it all). The marriage of synths with the band’s rocketing power metal was central in why the new album worked so well, and that can be heard as a microcosm here. And really, Brittney’s vocals subsume everything to her will anyway, her powerful performance here artistically depicted by the all consuming black hole in the video above.
5. Judicator – “Gloria” (from the album Let There Be Nothing)
Sometimes it doesn’t have to be that complicated to get on the best songs list. A few seriously crunchy, headbanging riffs, a fantastic vocal melody and an unforgettable call and response chorus —- “Gloria” had it all. The added dimension of John Yelland’s incredibly Hansi-ian vocal tone is one of the major selling points of Judicator’s sound for sure, but this was one of those songs where Judicator married their influences to something more inborn, a further refining of their own sound. The guest vocals by Mercedes Victoria were an inspired touch, utilizing female vocals in the most aggressive passages rather than in a typical beauty and the beast setup. Guitarist Tony Cordisco left the band after this album’s release, but hopefully the new lineup has a few more “Gloria’s” left in the bag.
6. Falconer – “Desert Dreams” (from the album From A Dying Ember)
Falconer guitarist Stefan Weinerhall penned the dreamily sweet melancholy ballad “Rejoice the Adorned” to serve as the emotional gut punch of their swan song album From A Dying Ember, and it certainly lived up to expectations. But for me, the last Falconer album’s most poignant tune was actually the second track on the record, the storming, attacking “Desert Dreams”. Not only was it cut from the same cloth as the band’s first two classic albums, all drama molded into furiously uptempo hard rock riffing with medieval-tinged melodic twists, but Mathias Blad does that effortless thing where his vocals stay at their own chosen tempo, regardless of the chaos erupting around him. It’s such an iconic sounding slice of classic Falconer —- and I’ll straight up admit that when Blad comes in with his layered harmony vocals around the 3:35 mark, I get all the feels. Aching bittersweet feels.
7. Sorceror – “Lamenting Of The Innocent” (from the album Lamenting Of The Innocent)
It’s rare that the longest track on an album winds up being it’s most spectacular song, but the title track to Sorcerer’s newest album fits that bill. A slowly, softly building atmospheric epic, “Lamenting Of The Innocent” is a journey unto itself, with distinct sections with separate melodic motifs that are equally compelling. It’s a spiritual cousin to the glorious “Unbearable Sorrow” off 2017’s The Crowning Of The Fire King, which also made that year’s best songs list (also the longest song on that album, must be #JustSorcererThings). The punishing, brutal vocal led bridges are contrasted with Kristian Niemann’s ever breathtaking swirling, hypnotic lead guitar melodies draping the chorus —- his clear tone and emotional phrasing makes you feel like you’re floating into the night air.
8. Magnum – “Where Are You Eden?” (from the album The Serpent Rings)
This majestic, surging gem from Magnum’s early January album The Serpent Rings is emblematic of the renewed spirit and vigor the band has found since 2018’s Lost On The Road To Eternity. Built on Rick Benton’s tension raising keyboard orchestration and some fairly aggro, border-line metallic riffing from Tony Clarkin, this song resembles something closer to Avantasia than the British rock that Magnum is typically associated with. And of course Bob Catley’s participation with that band recently adds fuel to that fire, but there’s truly something positively Tobias Sammet-ian about the heightened arc that Catley rides with his performance on this explosive chorus.
9. Dynazty – “Hologram” (from the album The Dark Delight)
Sometimes all it takes is to be at the right place at the right time… and to be a glorious power ballad of course. I can’t tell you how much I listened to this song around the early weeks of the pandemic, this album having come out in early April when everything was falling apart. I reviewed The Dark Delight among other albums as a means to distraction, but “Hologram”, with its comforting piano intro, plush orchestral arrangement, and gloriously skyrocketing chorus seemed to stick with me long after. It was one of those songs I kept on heavy rotation particularly around the April-June months for it’s uplifting, mood enlivening qualities. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that songs with that kind of power are more valuable than gold.
10. Boisson Divine – “Libertat” (from the album La Halha)
The euphoric, life-affirming single we needed in late-May is the capstone of one of the year’s most surprising, out of left-field albums. Boisson Divine’s blend of Celtic-punk spirit married to power metal guitars and their own Gascony folk-music DNA is honed to a razor’s edge here with an unforgettable hook. If the music video doesn’t lay it out pretty clearly, this is a song celebrating life in a fundamentally joyful spirit. And this song’s timing, post/during lockdowns was much needed, its chorus translated as “But one day you will escape / And you will find your freedom”. The band helpfully added English subtitles for this song’s music video, but I suspect most of us understood what they were singing about anyway.
So in the midst of random days blurring together, the amount of new releases worth talking about has built up quietly but considerably. And having had a lot of time on my hands recently, I have been listening to a lot of new music as you’ll see below. But I’m sure you can imagine that my mind has been occupied with the kinds of things all of our minds are occupied with recently —- namely, the news: the lockdowns, reopening phases, and as of late, the protests that are still happening all across this country and beyond. So my time management took a bit of a hit in the face of seemingly endless hours to drift around aimlessly, or to go for sanity-preserving drives out and about just to get out of the house. Thankfully, I’m back at work finally, and I’m quite grateful for that, and so here’s some long overdue housekeeping: Many uber-condensed reviews of recent new releases (and one from earlier in the year), all music that’s been on my rotation this past long, long month and a half.
And if you’re wondering whether at the half year mark I’ve noticed any kind of theme or trend to the year’s musical output —- the answer is not really, and maybe that’s because time has been so abstractly dilated lately that I’m just not mentally equipped to perceive that yet. My great hope right now (for more than just music reviewing reasons mind you) is that the next six months are “normal” relative to what we’ve just gone through, and that normalcy will allow me the luxury of thinking about these kind of fun ideas and not worrying about, well everything I’d been worrying about for awhile now. I hope you all are doing as well as you can, don’t be afraid to hit up the comments section below with updates on your lives as well as thoughts about the albums below. Social media is so toxic lately, that we all might be in need of a better refuge to vent and scream into the void.
Sorcerer – Lamenting Of The Innocent:
Finally, Sorcerer’s follow up to the excellent The Crowning Of The Fire King (a Metal Pigeon 2017 Best Album of the Year) is here in Lamenting Of The Innocent. I hoped that they’d carry on with their special mix of gorgeous, transcendent melody and ominous, all-encompassing Candlemass-ian heaviness, and it seems like they’ve decided to not fix that which wasn’t broken. This band has two main draws for me, one is the jaw dropping vocals of Anders Engberg who I first came to notice with his live vocal performance on Therion’s 2001 Wacken Open Air recording, and next the ex-Therion guitarist Kristian Niemann, who might be one of my favorite modern metal guitarists ever. His clear tone and richly melodic, flowing style was a perfect fit in Therion’s epic, expansive compositions and the same goes for his work in Sorcerer. Like Therion, Sorcerer lives and breathes in expansive, cinematic sound worlds, and you hear that on the title track, with its balancing of brutal, punishing guttural moments set against the backdrop of a cosmos-invoking, hypnotically swirling, melodic lead guitar. Niemann is an outright star on this track, his solo mid-way through built on unexpected figures and patterns, yet seamless and smooth. Its a stellar song, this album’s “Unbearable Sorrow” that I so loved from their last record, and its got stiff competition from “Deliverance” where Johan Längquist himself shows up as the guest vocalist. He does an incredible job alongside Engberg, particularly in their enjoined duet past the three minute mark in one of the album’s most emotional moments. Again, despite the beautiful cello accompaniment, somehow Niemann manages to steal the show on the instrumental side of things here, his melodic figures adding honeyed sweetness to the smoky, ghostly doomy balladry. This is a strong album throughout, no real dips or lulls, and Sorcerer is proving themselves to be a band that can transcend genres —- if you don’t normally enjoy doom metal, you’ll be surprised at the variety of tempos here, at the brightness of some of these sounds, and the unabashed bounty of melody that’s spilling over the sides here. Its doom metal put through a trad-metal filter, closer to the spirit of classic Candlemass than any of the newer styles that doom has morphed into over the years.
Paradise Lost – Obsidian:
It’s always interesting to consider what new releases will pop up at seemingly the perfect moment in relation to your life. As despite cooking up an Anti-Anxiety Power Metal playlist to combat all the mental fatigue I and many others are dealing with at the moment —- the truth is sometimes you just need something really dark and angry to work through these negative feelings in the most visceral way possible. Paradise Lost’s newest, the aptly named Obsidian, is a raw, bleak-toned, brutal and angry affair that’s loaded with memorably jagged, cutting riffs and Nick Holmes brooding, deadpanned vocals with plenty of those agonized death growls that punctuated 2014’s The Plague Within and Bloodbath’s recent The Arrow Of Satan Is Drawn. You might recall that I wasn’t too wild on the last PL outing, Medusa, thinking it a bit too meandering and not really digging the reversion to the softer side of the band’s sound. That’s why I was enthusiastically nodding along to the driving, grinding rhythmic riffing that came barreling out the gates with the album opener “Darker Thoughts”, possibly my favorite cut on the album. Guitarist Greg Mackintosh’s darkly sombre, melancholic tone infuses his lead playing, that’s at once dissonant and unsettling yet gorgeous and shimmering at once. Aaron Aedy is crushing on rhythm guitar, sitting in a pocket that’s slightly behind the beat and aloof with its fuzzy tone, yet capable of reaching forward with alacrity whenever the aggression needs to ramp up a notch. The single “Fall From Grace” might be a close second as a favorite however, with its measured pacing and downcast choruses opening up into an unforgettable bridge sequence where Holmes laments “We’re all alone”, which is simultaneously haunting, depressing, and cathartic to hear. There’s a slight nod to the band’s 90s era I’m hearing on songs like “Forsaken”, and a much more noticeable nod to old gothic influences ala Sisters of Mercy on “Ghosts” —- so the band keeps its overriding death infused heaviness tempered to some degree. But that merger is what makes Paradise Lost such an engaging band, as particularly of late they’ve proven that they can reintroduce heaviness into their sound and not lose that dramatic, haunted touch that defined so much of their work in the late 90s and early aughts. This is an excellent album, not quite as gratifyingly crushing as The Plague Within, but few albums are —- its definitely a step up from Medusa to my tastes anyway, and I guess I’m finding out that I prefer my Paradise Lost fix grittier, grimier, and darker than some.
Fellowship – Fellowship (Ep):
Nascent UK power metal upstarts Fellowship are making quite an impression with their debut three song self-titled EP, available on Bandcamp. I know you’re probably wondering why a band would be worth writing about who’s only a mere three song EP into their career, but it’s justified given the truly inspired results they’ve managed in just these short fifteen plus minutes of music. They’re perhaps a bit of an odd duck coming from the UK, as despite the Maiden-ish twin guitar setup, their sound is closer to that twinkly sound of bands such as Sonata Arctica, Highlord, and Twilight Force. But as their vocalist Matthew Corry has intimated himself in comments made on r/PowerMetal, there’s outside influences at work here, particularly in the vocal melodies where you hear his pop-punk roots emerging in the way he manages phrasing, delivery, and lyrical meter. That combination can be heard in the highlight and leadoff track “Glint”, one of the best songs you’ll hear all year. It’s a rare example of a deeply introspective take on self-empowering lyrics in power metal that aren’t too attached to fantasy tropes or lost in the miasma of metaphysical psycho-babble that we sometimes hear in certain bands (*cough*Avantasia). That chorus alone is the kind of spectacular moment that gives me hope for this band’s continued artistic success, because if this is what they’re capable of right out of the gate, the well of inspiration must be deep. Equally excellent is “The Hours Of Wintertime”, where I was blown away by the energy building mid-song bridge sequence (“…and now I’m left here fighting on my own…”) —- these guys are skilled at maximizing the potency of their best melodies and refrains, wisely avoiding the one and done status that I’ve noticed veteran bands sometimes doing when overthinking songwriting. I get a real Power Quest Magic Never Dies era vibe on the mid-tempo keyboard driven “Hearts Upon the Hill”, particularly in the rhythmic strut of its verses (in fact, I hear a lot of PQ in their sound, but it’d be presumptuous to call them an influence). The band recently released a music video for their cover of Elton John’s Disney classic “Can You Feel The Love Tonight?”, and the band makes it their own and thensome, lifting the song from syrupy balladry to an energetic, starry-eyed wonder. It’s a great sign, because truly creative bands know how to re-imagine the songs they cover, not regurgitate them.
Fairyland – Osyrhianta:
Fairyland’s long decade plus wait for a new album has finally come to an end with the release of Osyrhianta, a wildly symphonic album that see’s the band picking up where they left off. I mean of course, the line up is different, but with Fairyland that’s to be expected. I’m not going to go into who’s in the band from last time and who’s not, because it’s an entirely different lineup to Score To A New Beginning, which had an almost entirely different lineup to The Fall Of An Empire… you get the idea. The important touchstones to mention however is the return of former drummer now bassist Willdric Lievin, whose participation seems to have paved the way for the return of Elissa Martin on guest vocals on the wistful semi-ballad “Eleandra” (heh, sorry if I got your hopes up there for a second). On primary vocal duty is current Wind Rose vocalist Francesco Cavalieri (yes from the “Diggy Diggy Hole” band), an interesting choice to be sure, but I gotta admit he oddly fits into Fairyland’s opulent oeuvre quite well, his slightly gruff edged vocals lending a bit of grit and heft to the band’s grand, flourishing melodies. At the still beating heart of Fairyland is keyboardist Philippe Giordana, and his songwriting style is still geared towards regal, heavily orchestral keyboard melodies directing the flow of traffic, with guitar solos complementing things to spectacular effect —- check the :40 second mark of “Across The Snow” for a gorgeous demonstration of this synergy. This is definitely not riff-oriented power metal, with Fairyland staying true to their Rhapsody-ian cinematic roots than leaning towards any of the current crop of modern Italian power metal bands making waves lately. In that sense this sounds like a record out of the early to mid 2000s, albeit with a glossier production job. And back then I wouldn’t have enjoyed this (I became a fan of Fairyland’s stuff only recently actually), wanting a heavier, riffier take on power metal than what the Italians were dishing out at the time, but I’ve grown to appreciate this particular vein of the subgenre, and am enjoying Osyrhianta quite a bit. It’s a little top heavy, with the back quarter of the album sounding somewhat repetitive, but that could be a testament to the quality of those first seven songs being genuinely excellent. A fun blast from the past that sounds thoroughly relevant in the power metal landscape today.
Green Carnation – Leaves Of Yesteryear:
This is yet another one of those long dormant veteran bands springing back to life that’s been so frequent as of late. I’ll confess that this was a name I’ve heard before, likely from my MSRcast cohost Cary, but can’t remember listening to until now when I stumbled upon them a bit ago on Spotify’s new metal releases playlist. Green Carnation are a prog-ish, sometimes metal and sometimes hard rock band from Norway on Season of Mist records, which isn’t surprising given the label’s roster these days but very far removed from its extreme metal roots. Although not entirely far removed I suppose, as this is the longtime, on-going project of ex-Emperor bassist and ex-Carpathian Forest guitarist Tchort, who handles guitar duties here as well. His work here is far removed from his extreme metal work, owing more to the 70s prog-rock guitar rock of Deep Purple and Uli Jon Roth era Scorps. It’s a perfect partner to the slightly hazy, hard rock vocals of Kjetil Nordhus, who sounds a little more relaxed here than he does in his other gig as Tristania’s male co-vocal lead. The aforementioned prog dimensions of the band are most discernibly shown in the winding, often exploratory songwriting modes that take most of these tracks into eight plus minute lengths. Solos are allowed to blossom gradually, often to gorgeous effect as heard in “Leaves of Yesteryear”, and there’s often an uptempo yet unhurried balance going on in these songs that keeps you engaged, never checking out. I think the hard rock foundations of this band really do wonders to that end, because the most visceral and engaging factor that I enjoy about this album is its basic listenability. It’s that I find myself nodding my head along to the riffing, reveling in the awesome lead breaks that abound, and generally just rocking out to the catchiness of songs like the psychedelic soaked “Sentinels”, and the dirty blues-based edge of “Hounds”. This is tremendously satisfying, and a good one to check out if you’re in need of a dose of hard rock this summer.
Katatonia – City Burials:
The Swedish jelly to Opeth’s peanut butter in terms of bands who were once rooted in death metal but meandered out of it into something entirely more… cleaner we’ll say, Katatonia are back with yet another release that likely will frustrate longtime fans. The thing about Katatonia however is that I find their post-death metal experimentation and overall direction far more palatable and engaging than I do Mikael Akerfeldt and company’s recent outings. Katatonia have tended to describe their music not as a particular vein of metal, but as simply dark and heavy —- and even as they’ve continually lightened up the sonic aspect of their sound, those two definable traits have certainly never gone away. I was thrilled with how much I enjoyed 2016’s The Fall of Hearts, and I’m even more ecstatic to say that I might love City Burials a bit more. I think its accurate to say that this is ultimately a rock record with a metallic coating, because these songs are built more on rhythms and guitar figures that more loose, perhaps even spacier at times then your traditional metal based guitar approach. Songs like “Behind The Blood” have sly, slinky vocal hooks, where Jonas Renkse’s smooth but tortured voice eases from verse to chorus and so on with subtle inflections. That leads to eyebrow raising surprises whenever he elevates things with a shout or a yell, as in “Lacquer” when he raises his voice to an unexpectedly high pitch during the bridge sequence. But beyond Renkse’s hypnotic pull as a captivating vocalist, Katatonia works together as a whole —- this is as unified a band record as you might hear all year, all these elements working together towards a singular purpose, with no one really striving to stand out. Guitarists Anders Nyström and still new guy Roger Öjersson are laid back, restrained even, preferring minor flourishes even in lieu of having space for extended guitar solos. That might frustrate some listeners who want more of a livelier approach to things, and make no mistake, this is a laid-back album relative to, well everything else I’m reviewing in this article. This might be a mood based record for many, maybe even for me, as I do find myself listening to it in my grumpier, sadder moments.
Wolfheart – Wolves Of Karelia:
Finland’s most prolific blackened death-doom creator, Tuomas Saukkonen, has returned with the third Wolfheart record in the last three years, an incredible rate of output considering he also released a new Dawn of Solace record earlier this year in January. Wolfheart’s Wolves of Karelia is as full throated and impressive as the previous two, albeit in a more hammer-smash-face kind of way than the progressive metal experimenting of Tyhjyys, or the more emotionally resonant side of their sound displayed on Constellation of the Black Light. This new album is tied together with a lyrical theme (concept even?) focusing on the Winter War, a conflict that pitted Finland against the invading USSR at the dawn of World War II. Being a Finnish band, you can expect Wolfheart to bring perhaps a nationalist flair to its overview of this conflict, and indeed they do, never spelling things outright, but this is as close to Sabaton territory as they can come without loading up the keyboard lines and triumphant choruses. As Saukkonen bellows in “Hail of Steel”, “These lands belong to the north / These are the woods where wolves of Karelia rule”, and that’s kind of the theme we’re running with across these fittingly punishing, and straightforwardly brutal songs about defiance, the deathly cold, and the ravages of war. So on “Horizon On Fire”, the band’s more unrelenting, blistering side comes through, ditto for cuts such as “Born From Fire” and the album highlight “The Hammer”, as aggressive a song the band has ever done. I will admit that I longed for some more moments where we’d hear the Finnish melancholy influenced side of their sound, with the aptly named “Eye of the Storm” providing the only spell here. This imbalance makes Wolves the band’s heaviest album by far, but also prevents it from being among my favorites, as Constellation had more of that light and dark nuanced shading that I’ve come to love about Finnish bands.
Alestorm – Curse Of The Crystal Coconut:
It’s taken a long time to get to this point, where I’m actually reviewing a new Alestorm record. I’ve had a bit of a change of heart about this most ridiculous of bands, a perspective shift if you will, in large part due to talking to people who are fans of them and I suppose not taking myself so seriously either. Honestly Curse Of The Crystal Coconut was a breath of fresh air when I first heard it the other week, and these days anything that puts a smile on one’s face is greatly appreciated. I have no frame of reference in saying the following (given that I haven’t paid attention to Alestorm’s past few records apart from their debut), but some of these lyrics seem to be dripping with poison, aimed squarely at the band’s own fanbase. I’m thinking specifically of “Shit Boat (No Fans)” and “Pirate Metal Drinking Crew”, and they’re funny —- but yeah, I get the feeling that Chris Bowes might be a little over the band’s association with pirate imagery. Case in point is the lead off track and album highlight “Treasure Chest Party Quest”, where lyrics like “We’re only here to have fun, get drunk / And make loads of money / Cause nothing else matters to me” sort of say it all really. And here’s the thing, and this will sound judgemental, but I’ve see Alestorm live many times, I’ve seen their fanbase —- and truthfully, they kind of annoy me too. I get it. Moving on however, I will commend the level of musicianship here, there’s folk instrumentation aplenty, all very easy on the ears. There’s a rather astonishingly bold power metal moment on “Call Of The Waves”, with a truimphant chorus that surprised me by how stirring it is, so much so that I placed it on the Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist. I’ll recommend this for a lighthearted goof if you need it, and I’m betting lately we all do.
Myrath – Live In Carthage:
Myrath had a tough break when the whole pandemic situation hit, caught in the midst of a tour and thus getting stuck in the country they were in when travel restrictions started being enacted all over Europe. I’m not clear on the details, except to note that the band members have only just begun to make it home over the past couple weeks here (its now early June). In the midst of this, the digital release for their Live In Carthage live record/film came out and I was listening to this pretty intensely in early April. I don’t normally review live albums, as I don’t tend to listen to most of them anymore, but I found myself making an exception for Myrath, not only because I was curious about live renditions of some of my favorite songs of theirs being present here —- but also because Myrath’s sound was part of the tonic I needed to stave off negativity and anxiety that I was experiencing at that time. So much of their sound is built on major keys, be it in Zaher Zorgati’s often euphoric vocal melodies, that veer from that gorgeous Arabic phrasing that I love, to ultra emotive hard rock/power metal informed delivery heard on gems like “Sour Sigh” and “Wide Shut”. And I dunno, just like Orphaned Land, Myrath infusions of pan-Arabic music into their particular blend of prog metal and hard rock just speak to me, it takes me out of my environment and plugs me into modern day locales near the Meditteranean —- the clash of old and new that seems to characterize the cityscapes of Tunis, Cairo, Jaffa, and countless other places. Where I live in Houston, a relatively young city, we mark the passage of time seemingly by the development of new shopping centers, strip malls, and fast food places. Point is, it’s music that seems to connect me to an older, far more dramatic old meets new merging, an escape, but one that’s firmly locked in our real world. As for this live recording, as expected it’s cleanly recorded and mixed, a little too clean for some perhaps, but I enjoy the balance of soundboard recording and crowd mic-ing that the band was striving for in the mix. During the last chorus of “Storm Of Lies”, Zorgati backs off to let the Tunisian audience carry it on their own, and they loudly bellow “…don’t let me goooo!”, creating a transcendent moment for a song that is a plea for connection and not being alone.
Darktribe – Voici L’Homme:
So some of you might remember that I talked about this album on the MSRcast back in January when we were beginning to talk about the early 2020 releases. This is Darktribe’s third album, and it arrived on January 17th, and while I listened to it quite a bit around its release, it kind of slipped from my rotation and the next few crazy months happened. So around a week ago I was going through all the 2020 releases I’d listened to so far and this album grabbed my attention again, and I’ve realized that I never wrote about it here, and honestly I haven’t heard a lot of people (even in power metal circles) talking about it and that’s unfortunate. Darktribe hail from France, an unusual spot for a prog-power metal band whose sound is akin to Kamelot. But despite their music sharing the major keystones of that band —- a four-piece band with one guitarist/one bassist that employs a focused, economical, thick riffs in the front with vocal melody driven songs approach, Darktribe choose to liven up their sound with an ample splash of Euro-power. You hear that subtle addition in tracks like the album highlight “Back In Light” and the title track. The former is smooth and understated, with vocalist Anthony Agnello’s rich, smooth tenor delivering a slyly catchy chorus via some effortless melodic phrasing and never really launching his vocals skyward until just before guitarist Loïc Manuello’s joyful solo built on an articulately phrased progression and a wild bit of furious Kai Hansen-ing to punctuate it’s tailing off. On the latter, Manuello cleverly mirrors Agnello’s vocal melody about a half beat behind, creating a reinforcing of that melody that elevates that chorus even more than Agnello’s captivating delivery of lyrics in French manage alone. His employing his native tongue is a nice touch, because he sounds so extra confident in delivering it, not to say that his English is flawed (anything but). DarkTribe have a biblical/religious conceptual and lyrical theme running through their work much in the same way that Theocracy does. Don’t let that be a stumbling block, this is one of the most artistically significant releases of the year, and it’d be a shame if it got forgotten because of it’s unfortunate release date.
Boisson Divine – La Halha:
There’s always a record that comes out of nowhere every year, increasingly from band’s I’ve never heard of before, that manages to sweep me away before I knew what hit me. This year, it’s the summer’s most euphoric, life affirming release from a folk-metal quintet from the Gascon region of France with an odd name and a truly unique take on the genre. Boisson Divine don’t do folk metal like we’re used to, with dark overtones and often folded into an extreme metal patchwork ala Eluveitie, Manegarm, and many others. Their approach to the style is a bouncy, bright, almost celebratory take on traditional Gascony folk traditions married to meat and potatoes heavy metal with splashes of power metal’s neoclassical tendencies here and there. The closest comparison to come to mind would be if Flogging Molly were from Gascon, and played metal not punk —- and to lean into the folk metal genre a bit, at times I’m reminded of the playful stuff that Otyg did on their two albums way back in the day (ie, more folk than metal but still hard-hitting stuff). The mood here is noticeably, I dunno how to explain it… laid-back is not right, but I guess to say these songs are without anger is closer to the truth. As the band explains on their Bandcamp bio, their lyrics can be about historical figures, heritage, and legends, but also about everyday things like rugby and feasts. They emphasize the latter as much on the music video for “Liberat”, as soulful and unforgettable a single you’ll hear all year. The band hikes through what I’m assuming is their native countryside, pitches up a campfire, and gets to eating, drinking, and playing —- and that’s kind of the vibe I’m hearing throughout this record, that of enjoying and savoring simple, fine things in a pure way. It’s strangely the sentiment that we all could use right now, when everything about life seems extraordinarily complex, and we’re all too stuck inside our own heads, being isolated from friends and fun. I needed this record.
What a year, its feels like its both taken forever to get through and yet passed in the blink of an eye. I was a bit concerned halfway through around the early summer when I realized that it was a little light on noteworthy releases. My worries were premature however, as 2017 was backloaded in a staggering way, causing myself to pick up the pace in the late summer and early fall just to keep up. The process of putting together my year end lists this time was a bit strange, because I felt that my nominees pool for the albums list was a little shorter than I’d expected, while the songs list was way more stacked than it normally is. I keep written nominee lists for songs and albums going throughout the year, both so I can throw my choices in whenever I’m feeling like I’ve come across a contender, and (primarily) so I don’t have to trawl through my own blog come December to see if I’ve missed anything. As usual, I relied on iTunes stats for play counts to keep myself honest, but this year instinct really led the way. The following songs on this list just stood out clearly among the other nominees and they are absolutely worth a few minutes of your time. Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the best albums list coming soon, before year’s end is the goal!
The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2017:
1. “To Your Brethren In The Dark” – Satyricon (from the album Deep Calleth Upon Deep):
Not only is “To Your Brethren In The Dark” the emotional core of Satyricon’s controversial masterpiece Deep Calleth Upon Deep, its one of the defining songs of their career. Its almost slow-dance like tempo is hypnotic, its spiraling ascending and descending melodic phrasing eerie and suggestive, working to strengthen the captivating allure of this dirge. If the loose theme around Deep Calleth was about the spirituality found in appreciating art while set against the transience of life, this song could apply directly about our own most cherished art form (weighty stuff I know, but consider Satyr’s recent medical scares as its source material and that heaviness is appropriate). The phrase within the lyrics, “… pass the torch to your brethren in the dark…” is so relevant to everyone who loves metal, from the bands and labels to the writers at blogs and magazines to fans buying albums, going to shows, recommending stuff to other fans. There is no governing structure that supports metal music as a subculture or records its history for us, those tasks simply fall to us and its our responsibility to make sure that this music gets passed onto younger generations growing up today. I know this is a very metal blogger take on a song that is far more expansive in its lyrical reach, but its what I took from it. That’s also a testament to its power, as Satyr himself ascribed to it, “A song for the dark towers of the past and those who will rise in the future.”
2. “Apex” – Unleash The Archers (from the album Apex):
No song was more liable to get me a speeding ticket than the title track to Unleash The Archers awesome Apex, an album that not only represents the very best of what power metal has to offer, but has certainly opened up the genre to those who would normally scoff at it. This cut is a perfect example why, eight minutes that feel like three of a Maiden-gallop led charger that builds to the year’s most epic, satisfying chorus. This band is economical in the best sense, riffs are purposeful, built for conducting the crackling energy that underlies Brittney Hayes impassioned vocal melodies. Even the moody intro is a delight, with faintly chiming acoustic strumming underneath a lazily gorgeous open chord sequence, a moment of respite from the dramatic build up that follows and the rocket launch that happens immediately after. There’s real craft here, songwriting with an understanding of the trad/power metal bedrock that makes this kind of music spectacular, coupled with the wisdom of how to avoid the cliches and tropes that so often make it an easy target. In a recent tweet, Adrien Begrand (of Decibel fame) observed that the tastemaker best metal of 2017 lists were sorely lacking in metal that was actually, you know, fun —- I agree, and if said lists were missing out on Unleash the Archers, you can go ahead and ignore them now.
3. “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)” – Wintersun (from the album The Forest Seasons):
For all that I’ve written (controversially) about Wintersun that has aroused the ire of not only the band’s fans but Jari Mäenpää himself, I was eagerly anticipating The Forest Seasons, not to tear it down mind you, but because I genuinely think the guy is supremely talented. I loved the idea behind the concept, a metal re-imagining of Vivaldi’s FourSeasons, it was inventive and fun and made you wonder why no one (Malmsteen perhaps?) hadn’t tried it before. I’m not sure how well it succeeded in the minds of Wintersun fans as an album, I’ve seen a spectrum of opinions ranging every which way but for me I found that the autumn and winter cuts were lacking (ironic given the band’s name). The spring and summer movements however were fresh reminders of just why there’s so much hubbub surrounding this band in the first place. For my part, Mäenpää has never written something as starkly beautiful as the epic folk metal with a power metal engine of “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”. There’s a spirituality heard in the dim orchestral keyboard arrangement that mournfully croons in the air above the noteworthy riff sequence going on in the verse sections. His clean vocal melody in the refrain is not only surprisingly hooky in a Vintersorg-ish way, but soulful even, the kind of thing old school folk metal was built on really. The moment that will send crowds of people headbanging in venues all over Europe is the coiled snake springing to strike in the full on riff assault that occurs at 7:19.
4. “Unbearable Sorrow” – Sorcerer (from the album The Crowning of the Fire King):
Sorcerer is one of those bands who quietly slipped under a lot of radars this year, and their late October opus The Crowning of the Fire King will get unjustly ignored, but hopefully not by you once you hear “Unbearable Sorrow”. This was one of those bands I didn’t actually write a review on but we did cover on the MSRcast, which was my introduction to them and the moment when I realized that this was where ex-Therion guitarist Kristian Niemann had wandered off to after he had left that band. Sorcerer actually began back in the late 80s, released a few demos, and split up in 1995 before ever doing a full length. Finally in 2010 its founding members bassist Johnny Hagel and vocalist Anders Engberg reunited and grabbed some of their Swedish pals to round out the lineup. Engberg is a sublime talent, and for you Therion diehards out there, he might look familiar if you remember the male vocalist onstage from the Wacken 2001 footage off the Celebrators of Becoming DVD box set (he was also on the 2001 live album Live In Midgard). This Therion connection is of course magnified with Niemann’s role as the lead guitarist here, as his distinctive neo-classical, richly melodic style is painted all across this album to stunning results. He was my favorite of the many guitarists that have graced Therion’s lineup, just wonderfully inventive in his writing and possessing a fluidity in his playing that I’ve rarely heard mirrored by anyone else. On “Unbearable Sorrow”, his guitarwork is mystical, other-worldly, darkly beautiful and damn near spiritual in its expressions, and he’s almost topped by Engberg’s powerful, melancholic vocal performance.
5. “The Same Asylum As Before” – Steven Wilson (from the album To The Bone):
While Steven Wilson’s newest album didn’t wow me as much as 2014’s absolute masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase., it did bear a handful of gems, the shiniest among them this slice of Lightbulb Sun era prog-rock. Wilson’s distinctive songwriting style makes it difficult not to look for comparisons to his previous work, despite this song being set amidst an album heavily influenced by 80s ‘intelligent pop’ icons Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Tears For Fears. For all the art-pop ambition of To The Bone, what I mostly got out of it was Wilson returning to the lighter moods and tones of that classic turn of the millennium Porcupine Tree era. I hear it in this song’s chorus, a dichotomy of bummed out lyrics sung by a resigned narrator against a splash of bright, warmly laid back acoustic guitar. The escalating guitar pattern that slices through this lazy summer day is crackling and electric, an unexpected piece of ear candy that has kept me coming back to this song even if I haven’t been tempted to revisit the entire album yet. Also worth commending here is Wilson’s vocal performance, because his delivery in the chorus is sublime, hitting the boyish tenor he’s been avoiding on the past few albums but has achieved so often earlier in his discography. Forlorn Porcupine Tree fans who’ve long fallen off the Wilson wagon should really be giving this track (and the album at that) a spin, because its the closest he’s come to his old band’s sound in almost a decade.
6. “Black Flag” – Iced Earth (from the album Incorruptible):
Iced Earth rebounded with this year’s Incorruptible, after the subtle disappointment that was 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, and the album yielded a pair of absolute classics in “Black Flag” and “Raven Wing”. One could make an argument for either being the best on the album, but I know that the former was simply one of my most listened to songs of the year just based off iTunes play count stats alone. The band recently released an actual music video for this too, just a week or two ago, six months after the album saw the light of the day. If you’ve seen it in all its Master and Commander glory, you’ll get why it took them six months to get it out to the public —- and look, I’m hard on conceptual music vids by metal bands, frequently citing that the budget never covers the ambition. That truth applies this time as well, which is why I linked to the song itself above (though in fairness, the “Black Flag” video is far from the worst I’ve seen this year, one could even call it relatively decent). But I’m getting distracted, because my larger point is that this song’s evocative, scene setting lyrics need no video at all, particularly when Stu Block sings “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. How does that not put a music video of your own in your mind’s eye (or at least memories of playing Assassin’s Creed IV)?
7. “A World Divided” – Pyramaze (from the album Contingent):
Two years ago, I referred to then new Pyramaze vocalist Terje Haroy as one of the most promising new vocal talents in metal, and he certainly lived up to that hype on this year’s Contingent. It wasn’t a perfect album, in fact it was severely lopsided in that its first five cuts were home runs while the latter half of the album seemed lost and directionless. Amidst those first five songs however was the absolute gem “A World Divided”, a deceptively heavy song that lulls you in with a delicate, calming piano melody over much of its first minute, perhaps fooling you into thinking a power ballad was in the works. The great thing about guitarist Jacob Hansen’s production (yes that Jacob Hansen, he joined up after working as their producer/engineer on their last album and is pulling double duty) is that he keeps the keyboards high in the mix above the groove based riffs, and they’re an integral part of the musical fabric here. I know its a small thing, but there’s something delightful about how keyboardist Jonah Weingarten delivers a slowed down shadowing melody underneath underneath Haroy’s soaring vocal melody during the chorus. It speaks to the intelligence of the songwriting and the care put into crafting the soundscape that’s both hard hitting yet also fragile, delicate even. Oh and kudos to the band for actually delivering a high concept music video that was artfully done, and the band even looked great in it (which almost never happens)!
8. “Lvgvs” – Eluveitie (from the album Evocation II – Pantheon):
I loved this song and many, many others off Eluveitie’s first post Anna Murphy and company album, so much so that Evocation II – Pantheon is in the nominee pool for the upcoming albums of the year list. In a year where folk metal experienced something of a quiet artistic renaissance, Eluveitie released an album full of acoustic, European folk inspired music that was imbued with the very spiritual essence of what we loved about rootsy folk metal. It blew away its 2009 predecessor, but more importantly, it gave Eluveitie a bit of breathing room to stand apart from the more modern rock direction its former bandmates took with Cellar Darling. Their secret weapon in pulling this off turned out to be new vocalist Fabienne Erni, her voice light and breezy, providing a new tone in the band’s soundscape. On “Lvgvs”, her vocals are full of genuine warmth, almost reminiscent of Candice Night (of Blackmore’s Night fame), and her performance is surrounded by a stunning array of rustic instrumentation. This is technically not an original song, apparently being a traditional folk tune, but I’m not going to let that prevent me from putting it deservedly on this list —- Eluveitie make it their own here. This was on my playlist for the Texas Renaissance Festival, and it was the song I played when I woke up to the first really chilly winds of November sweeping through. Like the stick of frankincense I was burning that morning, “Lvgvs” was autumn’s musical incense.
9. “Journey To Forever” – Ayreon (from the album The Source):
If you tune into the upcoming MSRcast’s yearly recap episodes (we usually run a two-parter), you’re likely to hear loads about Ayreon’s The Source, the latest album from a band that is among my co-host Cary’s favorites. This album was really my first headlong plunge into Arjen Lucassen’s career defining project and while I certainly didn’t hate it, I didn’t share his extreme love for it for various reasons I outlined in my original review. One thing he and I will agree upon however is that “Journey to Forever” is one of the year’s best songs, bar none. Its got a pair of my all-time favorite vocalists in Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch and Edguy/Avantasia’s Tobias Sammet (joined by Michael Eriksen of Circus Maximus) —- and as impressive as that cast is, it wouldn’t be nearly as special if Lucassen hadn’t penned an incredible song. The chorus is spectacularly joyous, and it opens the song in acapella mode, followed by the beautiful plucking of a mandolin playing a variation on the chorus melody. After the guitars have kicked in, a gorgeous violin decides to swoon alongside everyone else, and at some point a hammond organ gets in on the fun too. Its the best three minutes on the album, in fact, its rather short length being the only serious criticism I can levy at it. If you heard the track and were reminded of his delightful work in The Gentle Storm project he did with Anneke van Giersbergen, you weren’t alone. More of this stuff please Arjen.
10. “Queen Of Hearts Reborn” – Xandria (from the album Theater of Dimensions):
One of the year’s grave disappointments was seeing the way Xandria split with vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen, a break-up that went public when she detailed the circumstances on a social media post. It didn’t paint the band in the best light, and to add to the condemnation were two ex-Xandria vocalists in Manuela Kraller and Lisa Middelhauve weighing in with similar testimony as to how the band treated its frontwomen. I got to see the band live with van Giersbergen a few years back while opening for the Sonata Arctica / Delain North American tour, and she was spectacular, easily one of the best live vocalists I had ever seen. I walked away from that show more impressed with her performance than anything else that night, and instantly decided to give Xandria another shot and began delving into their discography. Their 2017 release Theater of Dimensions is one of the best traditional symphonic metal albums in years, a throwback to a sound pioneered by Nightwish on classics like Wishmaster and Century Child. Its not quite revolutionary stuff then, but I enjoyed the hell out of it earlier this year, and “Queen of Hearts Reborn” was its supreme highlight, a powerful, towering showcase of dramatics and theatricality. I’ll admit, I soured on listening to the band after reading about the way they treated their vocalists, and I’m looking forward to what van Giersbergen will do with her original band Ex Libris. I wish I could’ve written instead about how Xandria’s future was bright, how this was their defining album —- and while artistically it might be, I pity whomever else they convince to work with them going forward.