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

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

1.   Orphaned Land – Unsung Prophets & Dead Messiahs:

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

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

2.   Visigoth – Conqueror’s Oath:

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

3.   Thrawsunblat – Great Brunswick Forest:

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

4.   Therion – Beloved Antichrist:

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


5.   Hoth – Astral Necromancy:

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

6.   Elvenstorm – The Conjuring:

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

7.   Exlibris – Innertia:

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

8.   Immortal – Northern Chaos Gods:

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

9.   Judicator – The Last Emperor:

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

10.   Dimmu Borgir – Eonian:

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

Lessons From Concert-Going

Its been a sweat filled, beer guzzling start to the summer for me, not only for the surprising intensity this early in our Houston HnH (heat and humidity), but for the four shows I’ve already attended in May and June alone, with one more on the horizon this next week (Hammerfall) and possibly another in July. As I’ve written before, I don’t normally write up show reviews because they’re usually uninteresting to read for anyone who wasn’t there, full of sycophantic blather about how the band “killed it” or any variation on butts being kicked. It was the type of stuff I loved reading when I was 18 —- the kind of die hard fan who’d show up to shows at 3pm to catch the band sound checking or loitering outside their bus. Back then I’d stay long after the headliners had left, not only to talk to the band members I hadn’t met before the gig, but to just linger and soak up the atmosphere and keep the night going. Such thoughts are unfathomable to me now, when the very thought of standing up front by the stage for all the openers just to be in a prime spot for the headliner sounds like a nightmare rather than a privilege. Most shows these days I don’t mind arriving to the venue a little bit later, to avoid rush hour traffic and miss an opener I didn’t care about, and I’ll usually leave right after the headliners make their final bow. Chances are I have to work the next day and/or my friggin knee is killing me. The in-show energy is reserved as well, kept for moments when I really get into it and with caution not to headbang my way into feeling awful in the morning. Moshing? No. Retired. Mosh retirement.

 

That being said, I do want to talk about something I’ve learned about the act of going to a metal show, or any show really, over the course of these past couple. Two were within five days of each other, one being an out of town trip with some rough conditions (more on that in a sec), and the other was a capstone celebration for a pair of friends who’d gotten married that same day. Ah concerts, things we music lovers look forward to sometimes more than album releases. You see the announcement months in advance, let yourself get excited and sometimes even fret about whether to buy the tickets ahead of time or trust in the low-ish attendance tendency of these small metal club shows to know you can just pay at the door the night of. Then you wait. Days before the show, you let yourself get excited again, start listening to the band you’re seeing to prepare a little, to whet the appetite to hear those songs live, and then its the show day and you’re standing there in front of a stage with a drum kit, some mics, and a few crew guys scurrying around setting everything up. Countless shows attended now and its never gotten old, and I’m always intrigued by every aspect of the shin-dig, from the way the bands choose to make their entrance, to the amount of dry ice fog they’re unfurling, to how much room they’re all gonna have to move around. Music nerd you see. I don’t think I’ve become jaded yet, even when I’m achingly tired, irritated that the soundcheck’s going on forever, and the openers were meh. I’m still at a show and damn its cool, its my decision to be there and I’m in a room full of (mostly) other people who get it.

 

In my experience, any disappointment surrounding a show is largely due to having to miss it thanks to some interceding combination of bad timing, unavoidable scheduling conflicts or the bummer of bummers, being strapped for cash. There is however that rare tragedy where you actually attend a show and walk out at the end feeling vaguely unsatisfied, or worse yet, apathetic and indifferent to what you’ve just witnessed. And look, we’re all a little hesitant to admit out loud when this happens for fear of looking and feeling like a sucker. The most egregious example however came during a December 2013 Finntroll headlining show. I had seen them way back in 2007 when Vreth had just joined up as the lead vocalist, and they were supporting their most vicious black metal infused album ever (Ur jordens djup). It was an incredible show, the band playing a tiny stage that barely rose a foot off the ground with all of us going nuts in front of them. My friend Matt got his shoulder dislocated at that show by a bruiser in the pit, dashed away to the back of the room, popped his shoulder back in place and bounded back in the crowd next to me. Insane. They rolled through two years later with Swallow the Sun and Moonsorrow and again it was all kinds of awesome brutality (sans injuries). The 2013 show however was abysmal. Gone was the raw, primal intensity that ran through those two performances, replaced instead with pandering to the Korpiklaani/Alestorm set, heavy on the keyboard humppa and the band all sporting fake elven ears. The band was going through the motions, Vreth was noticeably out of it, hungover or drunk as he admitted to my friends later. Not to get dramatic, but I don’t think any of us have listened to the band since.

 

 

Kamelot in Houston (May 2018) Credit: @wilkinson_image_designBut a band making a bad impression due to a combo of performance issues and aesthetic choices is admittedly an extreme outlier, and they certainly weren’t the problem when I left the House of Blues in Houston over a month ago on May 9th one song before Kamelot finished their headlining set. This is a band that can rightfully be called one of my favorite metal bands of the past decade plus, power metal stalwarts who towered mighty during their Roy Khan era, stumbled a bit after he left in 2011 but recovered with 2015’s excellent Haven album. I’ll say this, the band played well that night, Tommy Karevik was in as fine form of voice as he was on the past two times I’ve seen him, and they played to an appreciative audience. But I was a little unenthusiastic about the experience, mainly because I had taken a peek at the setlist ahead of time and noticed just how nearly identical it was to the last time I saw them in 2015. Nine songs were the same, and of the only four Khan era songs they played (down from seven the last time) all were cuts they had already played last time (and honestly on the tour before that back supporting Silverthorn in 2012 when I saw them in Austin). Now I get that three albums into the Karevik era, they’d naturally trim the Roy songs down a bit, but a little swapping in and out of classic Kamelot cuts would be preferable. Particularly for fans who’ve been around for awhile like myself. I was essentially seeing the same show from three years ago, with the exception of the new songs they added in from April’s The Shadow Theory.

 

What was missing from that Kamelot show was two factors that you at least require one of to be in play for a good concert experience —- namely, a sense of anticipation, or the element of surprise. The absolute best shows give you both, and those are rare gems that you should cherish and boast about loudly to friends during drunken reminiscing. With Kamelot, I knew the setlist going into it, and while I was mildly interested in hearing the new songs live, it wasn’t enough to overcome my dampened enthusiasm from knowing I was going to be hearing largely the same show yet again. There was zero sense of anticipation, but I bought the ticket well ahead of time, I was certainly not going to waste it. During the show however, there were no surprises —- the band played the same setlist that they were playing on every stop of their North American tour, no curve balls thrown in or new songs added or swapped out. The beats were the same within the show as well, Karevik with a piano only accompaniment for “Here Comes the Fall” so the rest of the band could take a water break, then there were the guest vocalist spots from Lauren Hart and Charlotte Wessels at all the expected moments. I know what you’re thinking, “Pigeon, this seems like disgruntled fan talk, not really a valid complaint about a band letting down an audience.” I’ll stop you right there. I am part of said audience. I take no especial pride in being a Kamelot fan longer than perhaps some of the other folks attending that show, but having that history with the band greatly exposed what was wrong with that show (and the band subsequently) to me whereas it may not have for someone excited to see them for the first time. Its the Iron Maiden dilemma just transposed to a smaller band (the grizzled Maiden show vet doesn’t need to hear “Iron Maiden” for the umpteenth time, but the fan seeing them for the first time is all about it).

 

My next show was a few weeks later, Tyr + Orphaned Land + Ghost Ship Octavius + Aeternam in Austin and it already had anticipation building up to feverish levels. It was a stupidly awesome bill, providing me with my first experience seeing Orphaned Land live, first time seeing the ascendant Aeternam (a Metal Pigeon Best of 2017 listee!), and another chance to see Tyr who I hadn’t seen since 2008 at Paganfest. I was hoping to rope in anyone to go check out the show with me but it would end up just being myself (my fellow MSRcast co-host having to bow out due to work obligations even though he badly wanted to go), so I made the road trip alone. Had to fight through a hot Texas Friday afternoon with rush hour traffic making it take well over an hour just to get out of Houston and its surrounding areas alone, but I made it to the venue just in time for doors to open. I was so incredibly giddy. I had blasted the combined Orphaned Land and Aeternam setlists on the way up to Austin, plus a spinning of Aeternam’s Moongod for the extra adrenaline. Both bands didn’t deviate from their expected setlists, but this time around the element of anticipation was so strong that knowing the songs ahead of time didn’t faze my enthusiasm. I was right upfront against the stage for Aeternam going nuts alongside one other guy while the rest of the crowd stood a little back, most voicing earlier within earshot about how they didn’t know who these guys were. One song in and they moved up with the pair of us, Aeternam winning them over with a no frills, heavy energy performance. I loved every second of it, this was a band that I didn’t realistically think would even tour, I didn’t even mind that they only got five songs worth of time.

 

 

Orphaned Land in Austin (May 2018)Seeing Orphaned Land take the stage made me feel a little like being eighteen again. It was surreal to finally see this band that I had been a massive fan of for such a long time since 2004 (more on that history here), and I’m not sure if there were any problems with the sound or if the band technically played well or not. I was on a high, just ecstatic that they were there and so was I, pressed against the stage and shouting along to these songs for the first time with other people who knew them (well, a good throng of us anyway, it was largely a Tyr crowd). At one point I made their guitarist Idan crack up when he saw how enthusiastic I was, giving him the metal horns (in my best Dio impersonation, throwing the horns directly at him). Their vocalist, the one and only Kobi Farhi said the band was going to be at their merch table directly after their set, and there I was, clutching a cold beer, with two Orphaned Land shirts slung over my shoulder (bought one for Cary, felt bad he was missing it), and shaking hands with every member of the band. I was admittedly a little star struck. Afterwards I ran into Achraf Loudiy from Aeternam in the stairwell/hallway of the venue and chatted for a bit, he remembered me from the crowd and seemed surprised that anyone knew who they were ahead of time. Oh I knew. He didn’t believe me when I told him I was jamming Moongod on the drive up from Houston. I’d like to think I helped him walk away with a good impression of Texas, enough to look forward to coming back one day (these guys work day jobs, he admitted its tough getting time off and schedules to line up).

 

The gig was already great, but it really was nice to be surprised (there it is!) with how solid Ghost Ship Octavius were live, like a groove based mid-period Paradise Lost, I enjoyed the rest of their set that I didn’t miss from hanging out with Orphaned Land in the back of the venue. Tyr were as enjoyable as I remembered, those excellent melodic group vocals being an absolute treat to experience live, and they played just about every classic Tyr cut you’d want to hear. I stumbled out at the end of the night achingly tired, having been up since 5am and having been to work earlier that day. A little detail about me, I’m really bad at tired long distance driving, prone to vision tunneling and highway hypnosis. I could chance it if someone was riding shotgun that could keep me awake and/or switch off with me, but that was no help to me this time. I had balked at the Austin weekend rates for hotels/motels when looking online, but someone tipped me off that the apartment complex literally right next to the venue had no entry gate and a load of guest parking spots where it would be safe to crash in your car for a few hours of sleep. I did this, occasionally woken up by a nearby car door shutting, but otherwise left alone. I left there sometime in the middle of the night well before dawn, a little better but still fatigued and made it thirty minutes outside of Austin to a Buc-ee’s in a highway town called Bastrop.

 

If you don’t know what a Buc-ee’s is, think of a 24 hour Texas sized gas station/convenience store with perhaps the cleanest restrooms you could imagine such a place having (seriously, they pride themselves on it). The parking lots of these highway Lothlóriens are obnoxiously large, and in the middle of the night, tired travelers often park at its far edges and get some sleep. The loitering State Troopers standing outside the store chatting and sipping coffee don’t care, they’d rather you sleep in your car there than wreck yourself or someone else on the road. I landed there and decked out for a few more hours, took advantage of everything Buc-ee’s can offer (cold water on my face, large coffee, protein snack kit and some cookies because I already had carb-y beers that night so screw it) and hit the road to Houston with podcasts playing to keep my mind focused. When I finally arrived home, I laid on my bed and felt the urge to once again hear the music that I had just heard that night, something that I never ever do. But I put on Orphaned Land and Aeternam and Tyr on shuffle and fell asleep to those bands, wanting to revisit such a great show in any way possible. It was a classic gig in my book, that perfect combination of anticipation and reward, it outweighed anything negative surrounding the show (the tiredness and the travel and having to go it solo).

 

 

Satyricon Houston (May 2018)Four days later I was heading out to Satyricon at a venue north of downtown Houston I’d never been to before. With me were three friends, two of whom had just gotten officially married earlier that day. Yes they were going to a black metal concert on their wedding night, and the groom was fired up in particular about seeing the band for the first time (he is a big, big fan). We all had a good idea of the setlist ahead of time, my only quibble being that it seemed like they were skipping playing “Now Diabolical” on this tour. Its been said by the band no less that this would be their likely last North American tour, for reasons that they’ve not gone deeply into but I think are largely business oriented at heart. They don’t get big crowds in the US, not like those in Europe, and its understandable that this late in their career they’d want to avoid spending a lot of time and money for little reward. Whatever the reason, we knew this was the last chance we’d have to see them. I’d seen the band twice before, but was still left feeling that this was going to be a momentous, memorable show just for the magnitude of its finality for us. But sometimes the best part about a show is everything else around it not related to the band or the performance —- it was fun to experience a new (and cool) venue, hang out at the nice patio bar built right next to it before and after the show picking craft beers off a gaudy flatscreen TV menu. It was an altogether different kind of celebratory feel to see my newly married friends rockin’ out right up front and center in front of Satyr in a state of near delirium. I was happy that they were that ecstatic. The bonus was that the band did throw some surprises our way in the setlist (they played “Now Diabolical” for one), and Frost came out from behind his drum kit to lead us in some strange, foot stomping crowd chant while Satyr politely tried to hide his amused grin.

 

I think in considering my Austin experience (Tyr/Orphaned Land) and the Satyricon show, it was revealing in just how much I was able to enjoy them despite the solo nature of the former and the extremely social nature of the latter. I’m not a psychologist nor would I attempt to armchair that subject even a little, but being able to get rich, positive experiences out of both of them further reinforces my belief that you simply have to have one of those two crucial elements. Anticipation or surprise. And they can both manifest in a variety of unexpected ways —- surprises don’t always need to come from rotating setlists, or even from the band themselves. They could come from the venue, or the people you meet, or the energy you’re feeling during the show, maybe even the food you ate. One of my most memorable show memories was seeing Dio fronting Heaven and Hell in 2008 on the Metal Masters tour at an outdoor amphitheater, singing the opening lines to “Heaven and Hell” itself while blackened grey clouds in the distance behind the stage crackled with lightning. It was this unexpectedly epic backdrop to one of the most epic metal songs ever, with Ronnie James freakin’ Dio singing it in front of us. Unreal. Another was seeing Watain in Austin in the courtyard of an outdoor club under waves of torrential downpour, a small pocket of fans under the awning at the front of the stage and everyone else back inside the club itself, watching from the doorway. Ages back I had a bunch of free tickets to go see Poison at the same amphitheater I’d later see Dio conjure up storms at, and I convinced a bunch of co-workers at the time to go with me. We had a blast, sitting at the top of the hill, imbibing the mind altering substances of youth while laughing and attempting to snake dance along to “Talk Dirty to Me”.

 

Anticipation can sometimes be a hard thing to perceive correctly, it isn’t enough to merely tell yourself and others that you’re looking forward to going to a show, you have to internalize and feel it within. Case in point was seeing Insomnium the other night here in town. I went with two of the same friends I went to Satyricon with, we even had time to get some phở beforehand. All seemed well but our enthusiasm in seeing Insomnium was a little worn away by having to deal with a bill that was way too loaded, and not in the good way. Three decent to downright awful local bands played before tour openers Oceans of Slumber (the hometown band gone global) took the stage. The venue, my local favorite, also took the weird step of having tables out where the middle of the floor was which made it worryingly dangerous when some idiots tried to start a mosh pit among the oh, thirty to forty of us who were standing in front of the stage during Insomnium’s set. I was exhausted from working earlier that day, seemed like most of the crowd was as well (being a weeknight didn’t help), and despite the band playing extremely well and wringing out the most energy they possibly could from us, I didn’t feel that same kinetic spark that I did the first time I saw them while opening for Epica a few years back. It really wasn’t the band’s fault —- the crowd was weird. A mix of really exhausted people just standing in the back with beers in hand, some of us exhausted folks up front, our agitation exacerbated by mosh pit starters and terrible local metal bands (I may write about this at some point, but I’m over supporting local metal). One guy was simply waiting for “While We Sleep” to attempt to start his bro-pit like this was some hardcore show. He received a prompt telling off by MetalGeeks host RedVikingDave (seriously, no one piss off Dave, he’s frightening).

 

I’m about to see Hammerfall in a few days. I had a great time seeing them almost exactly a year ago at the same venue they’re going to be playing this coming week. It was an electric, highly enthusiastic performance that engendered a similar response from the crowd, Hammerfall is nothing if not masterful stage performers. I’ve been looking forward to it to a certain extent, but I know from hearing a friend talking about it that the setlist is largely the same. This time around I’m kinda okay with that because it was such a great setlist last year… doesn’t that make me a hypocrite? I don’t know but I suspect that each band creates different levels of expectations for lack of a better term. One might suggest that it will be hard for Hammerfall to live up to last year’s show, that it might be the metaphorical second slice of pizza (no matter how good it is, its not as amazing as the first). I’m okay with accepting that as a possible reality, I’ll be heading into this show ready for anything and expecting that it will simply be a good time. It could be possible that there’s a third way of ensuring that a show is enjoyable, and that’s in surrendering one’s reliance on anticipation and surprise, but that might require a level of inner zen that I haven’t figured out how to unlock yet. Maybe getting to that show zen is about focusing less on the things that irritate you, and more on the things that captivated you when you were eighteen and everything onstage seemed a little mystical. Maybe it requires engaging one’s imagination —- so Hammerfall weren’t just bumming around their tour bus, rolling out of their bunks and clambering onto the stage. Nope, they were just standing on that hammer of ice from the “Blood Bound” video and some cosmic portal has opened up and suddenly they’re here in front of me, icicles clinging to their hair and frost covering their guitars…

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2017:

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2015:

 

 

1.  Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

3.  Draconian – Sovran:

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

5.  Amberian Dawn – Innuendo:

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

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

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

 

 

6.  Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror:

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

7.  Kamelot – Haven:

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

9.  Year of the Goat – The Unspeakable:

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

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

 

 

 

10.  Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2015:

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Metal Pigeon on Podcasts!

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

 

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

 

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

The Reality Check: Metal Hammer’s Tom Dare on the importance of mainstream metal

As I’ve been sitting here pouring through the many legal documents made available to the public today regarding the Geoff Tate vs Queensryche legal battle extravaganza in preparation for a future article coming soon here on the blog, I was sent a link to a pretty fantastic article by Metal Hammer’s Tom Dare regarding the importance of mainstream metal. Its an extremely well written, straight to the point piece that in my opinion, seems to be targeted directly at the hordes of internet crybabies who expend an inordinate amount of energy decrying metal or hard rock bands who are either in the mainstream or on the cusp of breaking through into it. Its a must read, for anyone who loves rock or metal, as a reminder that nearly all of us started off with your Green Day, Metallica, Guns N Roses, (insert name of point of entry band here), and that sometimes we should keep our arrogant sneering in check. Its also a shot of knowledge to that certain type of rock/metal fan who stubbornly clings to the known and comfortable, the mainstream favorites, without daring to adventure further into more underground metal subgenres in search of inspiring artists and new sounds (I’m looking at you Eddie Trunk!).

I’ll get to work, after one more episode…

 

If you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been absent from posting anything new for almost a whole month here. And while I’m grateful for the couple of emails I received from a few folks asking me why the hell I’ve been lollygagging(!) around and not updating, I must confess: I needed a break. Not that this blog’s output has been particularly prolific, as I’ll always favor quality over quantity, longer more in-depth writing rather than short bursts of message board quality troll like commentary, nevertheless I was starting to feel like I needed some time to catch up on the rapidly piling up stack of new music I hadn’t properly digested yet. I was still listening to metal during the last month, but doing so freely, as opposed to the schedule laid out by various album release dates. There was a lot of revisiting an individual artist’s back catalog, checking out releases from bands I had stopped paying attention to for the past few years to see what they’ve been up to, as well as just deciding to listen to some personally designated classic albums — there was a lot of repeat listens to Therion’s Symphony Masses for example.

 

In addition to all that, I just felt the urge to indulge in some interests away from metal for a little bit. Its something that I think a lot of us who write about music or various other topics go through every now and then but keep to ourselves. But the reality is that sometimes you just need to spend a few days in a row crashing on the couch after work to watch yet another complete season of Mi-5 on Netflix, catch up on 360 games, or just tune everything out and read a book. I think I’ve spent an unreasonable amount of time in the past feeling privately ashamed that I’ll occasionally wake up with Good Morning America or NPR instead of (insert thrash/death/black metal classic here), but I’ve gotten older to such a point where that kind of thinking is uncomfortably childish. Perhaps it is simply growing into adulthood, but I’d like to think that my lack of one hundred percent focus on all things metal is far more beneficial than not. I’m sure this concept isn’t exactly a revelation to many of you, but it has been to me over the past few years, and its taken time to adjust. When I decided to author a metal blog, I knew going in that things would get difficult when I hit these speed bumps, but I think that going forward I finally have an idea of how to creatively embrace those brief lapses in metal concentration for the purposes of this blog.

 

 

With that being said, its about to pass a half a year since I first launched, and I’d like to take a moment to thank those of you who have been reading (or at least subscribing and ignoring – I’ll take it!). I’ve already had far more viewership than I could have possibly imagined at such an early stage, and hope to continue to build on that in the months and years to come. Here’s whats coming up this week and beyond:

  • A comprehensive look back at the past month of new releases by Sabaton, Dragonforce, Sonata Arctica, Grand Magus, Kreator, and Burzum.
  • I’ll ponder the potential of a Roy Khan-less Kamelot, examine just how vital his role was in the band’s artistic successes, and discuss how he will be extremely difficult, and perhaps near impossible to replace.
  • Crazy from the Heat! Metal and the arrival of summer.

 

 

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