So I figured that with November just about to slip away and our Spotify Wrapped already cluttering social media and Discords everywhere, that I’d take a bit to write up my own 2022 Wrapped feature as it were. The reality is that there were a large handful of albums that I just didn’t get to review properly on the blog this year for reasons related to real life busyness, and the very real factor that the metal release calendar was back-loaded this year. From highly anticipated power metal albums to intriguing new melodic death metal artists I’d never heard of before, the latter half of 2022 has been just a nonstop flurry of intriguing releases to check out one after another, and honestly its been a challenge to keep up. So rather than stress myself out scrambling to review them all here before the yearly best of lists have to go up, I figure I’d just do this a little more casually and talk about the stuff that’s really stood out these past few weeks and maybe what has continued to linger over the past year or resurface.
Stuff I didn’t get around to reviewing:
The first thing that immediately comes to mind as an album that got lost in the shuffle these past few months was Queensryche’s newest Digital Noise Alliance, which aside from the ridiculous word salad album title is genuinely the best album the band has made with Todd LaTorre, even better than their inspired but undercooked self-titled 2013 debut with him. They did a few smart things here: First off, they backed off the metallic approach they were hitting hard on 2019’s The Verdict; secondly, they once again embraced the accessible prog-metal elements that defined their sound to the ears of many fans, that being crisp, clean guitar tones, dynamic songwriting, tight melodies, and bright vocal harmonies to tie it all together. There were moments on 2015’s Condition Human where I felt like they were overthinking their prog sound a little too much, an over compensation for the drifting away from that territory in the latter Geoff Tate years. But here, songs like “Hold On”, and “Lost In Sorrow” ring with the same sort of charming, insurgent energy that ran through Empire, and Wilton’s leads sound kinda inspired even. LaTorre delivers, which to his credit is one of those unsurprising details now, his voice just made for the band’s songs past and present. I dunno… its not a perfect album for sure, there are some meh moments, but overall I found myself pleasantly surprised at how much bite this thing had in it. It was also cool to hear Casey Grillo’s drumming on an album again.
On the purely power metal front, I know a lot of time has gone by since the release of Dragonland’s The Power of the Nightstar practically two damn months ago, but you should know that I’ve jammed it a lot. Like alot alot. And I’ve gone through cycles with this thing, being entirely enthralled the first few times I listened to it just by the sheer virtue of having the band back, and being aided by there being some seriously great choruses in these songs (“The Scattering of Darkness” and the title track are magnificent), to finding myself giving it a more grounded appraisal after sitting with it for awhile. So its not as utterly spectacular as Under the Grey Banner, and I don’t think many of us expected it to be, but this is a strong power metal record, definitely a bit glossier than we’re used to Dragonland sounding, but with Olof Morck’s industry success with Amaranthe likely came a bigger budget for this project (to that point, Jacob Hansen engineered the recording). I will say that lyrically, this album suffers from what I’ll politely phrase here as Ayreon-itis, that being it’s insistence on detailing a plot to such a degree that the lyrics suffer from having to deliver a straightforward narrative instead of painting a picture with poetic phrases. It’s one of those things that negatively can hamper a power metal album’s ability to get you to sing along enthusiastically.
Continuing on the recent power metal front, France’s Galderia are finally back with their newest, Endless Horizon, and it’s a worthy follow up to 2017’s immaculate Return of the Cosmic Men (you’ll likely know “Shining Unity” from that album, which was one of the best power metal singles of the last decade). I think the consensus on Endless Horizon is that it’s a strong record, though of a bit of a grower in comparison to their previous two. I suspect that one of the reasons why is that the songwriting is a bit more contemplative than anthemic here, which I’m entirely onboard with. It’s expanding the band’s sound in a subtle but satisfying way — and that’s not to say there aren’t great anthemic power metal explosions here (“Striking the Earth” for starters), but I was equally as enamored by “Twenty One”, a jangly acoustic built introspective piece with warm melodies and Sebastien Chabot’s slightly sandpapery vocals reminding me of Steve Lee era Gotthard. All in all it was a quality release from one of the more overlooked Euro-power bands to have landed on the scene in the past decade. I think they’d have more momentum globally if they could just deliver albums faster than their current five year at a time clip, but maybe that’s just not possible for whatever reason.
On the extreme metal front, there’s been a lot worth listening to, particularly in the progressive death realm, but also with a few recent black metal surprises worth crowing about too. To talk about the latter first, I need to bring up this Stormruler album Sacred Rites & Black Magick, introduced to me via longtime follower of the blog Rob (@GodofMetal69 on Twitter). I’ve been lowkey addicted to this album ever since he recommended it a few weeks ago and I think it’s one of the most satisfying melodic black metal records I’ve heard in awhile. Stormruler are a duo from the blackened lands of St. Louis (I’m guessing they took the Rams move to L.A. pretty hard) and this is their second album in the span of under two years, their debut coming last May. They’re also signed to Napalm Records, which is an eye opener for sure, because you typically don’t associate modern Napalm signees with black metal of this kind, but I think the label is onto something with these guys. I love the Dissection influences going on here, it brings a heavy nostalgic element to this sound, and they do incorporate enough dynamic elements into the songwriting to keep these songs creatively shifting and morphing and never feeling repetitive. The album is an ambitious hour plus, but about eight minutes of that are these scattered instrumental interludes that are like segue pieces between the songs, in a style that I can only describe as maybe dungeon synth? As a complete listening experience, it oddly works, though I can see how some might find them annoying. It’s an incredible effort overall though and black metal fans should at least give this a look.
Right, the new Behemoth album, which I listened to initially on release day and yet didn’t get back to it until a few weeks later. So 2018’s I Loved You At Your Darkest got criticized quite a bit for what many felt was the band stepping out of their defined sonic territory… and while I wasn’t that fond of the album overall I didn’t think it was quite the disaster that some were accusing it of being. I actually liked some of the less aggressive, atmospheric explorations on that album, what I saw as continuations of the bands exploration of empty space and texture on The Satanist. On Opvs Contra Natvram, it seems like they’ve naturally readjusted a bit to incorporate a little more dense riff sequences, the album ultimately sounding like the merging of those previous two albums. The best song here is “The Deathless Sun” with its grandiose “I am nothing! I am no one” chanting serving as a vocal hook motif, but I also enjoyed the heck out of “Once Upon a Pale Horse”, with its Metallica-esque Hetfield-ian rhythmic strut. I didn’t have any of this enthusiasm for the Darkthrone’s newest album Astral Fortress however, a continuation of Fenriz and Nocturno Culto’s recent exploration into laborious repetition and slow sonic drudgery. I know opinions were split on this and some folks are really enjoying it… fair enough, but I sat through this record wondering what happened to the Darkthrone that rocked me silly on Circle the Wagons and The Underground Resistance.
I did finally listen to the new Bloodbath album, Survival of the Sickest, after sleeping on it for a few months. It’s as vicious as you’d hope and I enjoyed thoroughly while driving all over Houston in the pissing rain on Thanksgiving day (because what else would you listen to on a holiday?). It sounds crisply recorded but still loaded with enough grime and grit that you’d want an old school Swedish death metal record to have, which is about all you can hope for really. I enjoyed listening to this, I do think its a tad stronger than The Arrow of Satan Is Drawn… it feels, this is a weird thing to say, but “breezier” than that album? I guess I’m feeling like it’s just a quicker, looser feeling collection of material in comparison, but that could just be recency bias speaking. Oh and on the melodic death front, we played this band on a recent episode of MSRcast, but I’ll shout them out again here, that being In the Woods… who released Diversum only a week or so ago. It’s a really strong album that fans of Novembers Doom and Green Carnation will likely get into, a merging of progressive death metal musicality with incredibly strong clean vocals courtesy of Bernt Fjellestad (he had a brief stint in Susperia a few years back). Also I want to direct attention to Finland’s melodic death metallers Horizon Ignited who released Toward the Dying Lands earlier this summer on Nuclear Blast. They remind me of classic Gothenburg melodeath put through a Pantera filter (it sounds weird, but you’ll hear what I’m talking about), their music having a no-frills, straight to the gut quality that I surprisingly enjoyed.
There were a lot more records that I could’ve covered here that eh, look we’re just running out of time and space for. New Stratovarius (was pretty solid, but all their recent albums have been); new Lacrimas Profundere (not quite the gothic metal masterpiece I was hoping for but it had some great songs on it); the new Avatarium is their best album yet and totally worth the time if you’re into that kind of doom tinged smokey hard rock sung by a fantastic lady singer; oh and I listened to this new album called Woe by a band called An Abstract Illusion more than a handful of times and it’s one of those weird ones where I think I’m into it, and other times I wasn’t quite so sure (I think the mystery there was why I kept coming back).
Stuff that was interesting (to me anyway):
No doubt we’ve all heard the new Metallica single “Lux Æterna” by now — you know it’s not bad in that bare bones Metallica kind of way, reminding me of bits of “Fuel” (I know I know) and just the Load album in general in a wild way. After the overtly old school claw back feel of Hardwired, you’d figure the last thing the band would want to do is recall hints of their mid-90s outrage makers but here we are. Am I the only one hearing that sound? I saw the cover art for the album by the way… and I’ll echo Revolver Magazine’s tweet:
For real… how can a band with so many cool t-shirt designs over the years consistently release terrible album covers/concepts again and again? You’d figure that at some point they’d look at one of those Pushead designs they likely have stashes of and think “why don’t we just use one of these for the album?”. And look I get the concept here, 72 Seasons, the years 1-18 that are formative for all of our individual yada yada yadas, and I appreciate Metallica always aiming to be relatively original. But originality doesn’t necessarily equate to something that’s good, or a design that one would want to sport on a shirt or poster on their wall. Heck of a color choice there too, I believe it’s French’s Yellow Mustard? Of course the contrarians on Twitter all came to it’s defense. No. You’re all wrong, it’s terrible, and you’re all wrong.
On a more delightful note, Judas Priest making the Hall of Fame was worth it if only for the clip of Halford getting to sing with Dolly Parton. Much has been made of this online I’m sure, but there is something inherently charming about this duo and Parton’s own bemused reaction to it. That Priest got in on a category specific award of some kind rather than just the general voting seems to have been a sore spot for many (Halford included), but I think at this point going forward, folks will just remember that they got in and articles will reference them as having done such, and that’s kind of all that matters for an award that’s all about perception anyway. There is still a big part of me that is all in the “who cares?” camp regarding Rock Hall nominations, but there’s another part of me that can admit that it’s nice to see a foundational metal band get something like this, for the guys in Priest to look at their place in a pantheon with musical heroes of theirs that they idolized growing up (even if most of us don’t give a damn about The Beatles).
And in other good news, the Pantera “tribute” that everyone was deriding and saying was going to be disrespectful actually had a great start at the Heaven and Hell Fest in Mexico. Footage from the shows back that up, the setlist is fantastic, Zakk reigned in the pinch harmonics a tad, and even Phil sounded like Pantera era Phil was supposed to sound (no Vince Neil-ing it here!). I called it months back on the podcast, but I had a feeling these guys would be able to pull this off, it wasn’t exactly attempting to recreate a progressive rock masterpiece on stage — these are Pantera songs. Charlie can pull off the odd Vinnie Paul groove based time signatures, Rex is Rex and Zakk would be faithful to Dimebag’s exact riffage. People are excited to hear these songs live again and man… when there’s so much crap out there to get us down, let’s collectively celebrate something that should be making us happy. I know it’s a nostalgia trip, but as a metalhead growing up in Texas, Pantera brings back good memories. I know that’s a weird thing to say. And let’s call it a wrap on 2022… I’m sure there’s stuff I’m forgetting to mention but I’ll probably address anything else on the upcoming episodes of MSRcast (subscribe! We’re on Spotify too!).
As I enter the tenth year of existence for The Metal Pigeon blog, its time to look back on a year that was undoubtedly strange, unexpected, and challenging for me as a music fan. To summarize it, I went through a period in the spring where I was feeling a little uninspired by most of the metal records coming out, and as a result started to check out different styles of music. I dove really hard into K-Pop in particular (and have kept diving), and had to figure out how to reignite a passion for metal that had all of a sudden felt a little stagnant. To the latter point, I figured out that a great tonic was to allow myself to escape the new release treadmill and simply revisit older classic metal records for fun. I also found out that when it came to new releases, my years long strategy of just slamming repeat listens of a record sort of by force was beginning to yield purely negative results. It was more prudent to wait until I was in the mood to hear something before giving it a spin, a process which definitely resulted in delayed reviews and even missing a few things, but better to slow down a little than feel burned out and stop entirely. All these months later, I feel like my connection with metal has become stronger, particularly through finding an refreshed appreciation for black metal again. As it turns out, when you spend a good amount of time ingesting super sugary music, what you really begin to crave as an antidote is it’s most extreme opposite. As a result, your musical perception is actually more open to appreciate the details and textures of extreme metal anew, rather than feeling like you’ve heard everything before. I suspect it’s a lot like if you scarf down a package of cookies in one sitting, your mind will have you yearning for I dunno, a salad the next day. The lesson learned here is that diversity is good, and balance even better — if you’re feeling a little unmoved by one style or another, check out something entirely different to change it up. This 2021 best albums list is a perfect example of how that can really have a dramatic effect.
1.Therion – Leviathan:
It’s a testament to how much I love Leviathan, that despite its late January release, it was my clear cut, without a doubt number one album all the way up until mid-summer, when the new Helloween album came out and I started to wonder if it would slip a bit. I questioned it further when in the late summer, I was getting a flurry of black metal recommendations tossed my way, and damn near all of them were direct hits, gripping my attention and dominating most of my metal listening time (which was in precious supply at certain points). But I would find myself returning to Leviathan regularly, in random moments when I didn’t even intend on playing the album all the way through, just a few songs here or there, to satisfy a craving to hear a particular melody or chorus. Spotify reminded me of this on December 1st when it presented me with my Your Top Songs 2021 playlist, and all the tracks from this album were on it (yes the whole damn album). Last.fm backs up the stats, Leviathan is my most listened to album of 2021 by well over a hundred listens compared to the album in second place, and my first rule of making these lists is to be honest with myself, even if it risks exposing me as a total fanboy. And look, I’ll embrace that title, because Therion’s first proper studio album of original material in a decade was a monumental event in the 2021 release calendar for me. This record had the added burden of being the follow up to first Therion album that I regarded as somewhat of a disappointment (2010’s Sitra Ahra). Fortunately Christofer Johnsson decided to abandon that album’s more avant garde/progressive tendencies and made a conscious decision to return to the band’s classic symphonic metal sound, even telegraphing in interviews ahead of the album release that this was an attempt at making a record that hardcore Therion fans would appreciate. And here’s the thing, he certainly succeeded in achieving that goal, but I believe that in doing so, he actually steered the band’s sound into a direction they’d not previously explored.
The beauty of Leviathan is that despite its overt look back to the band’s late 90s, post-Theli symphonic metal era, it’s a gaze that is undoubtedly refracted by the band’s gradual shifts in their sound over the course of all those albums between then and now. Where classic albums such as Vovin and Deggial were moody, dramatic, orchestral driven works, Secret Of The Runes was a jump to a heavier, almost hypnotic guitar driven approach. Their twin albums Lemuria and Sirius B were expansive, cinematic masterworks, almost panoramic in their scope and ambition. And then we saw the introduction of a new vocal driven era with Gothic Kabbalah, where for the first time the songwriting ran through some pretty incredible singers who had the ability to dominate songs through unforgettable vocal melodies. Even though releases since have been few and far between, this era has lingered; case in point, the band’s last release was the actual opera Beloved Antichrist, where guitars took a backseat to the stellar cast of classically trained singers who, you know, did their opera thing for most of those three discs. So no matter how pointedly Johnsson decided to look back at that particular late 90s era, the sound he wove together on Leviathan couldn’t help but be affected by everything in between, particularly the emergence of strong lead vocals as the band’s chief melodic force within the songwriting. This album’s most heart stirring moments are it’s most gloriously vocal driven ones — the eternity evoking choirs in “Die Wellen der Zeit”, Taida Nazraić’s achingly melancholic lament in “Ten Courts of Diyu”, Marco Hietala’s impassioned vibrato in “Tuonela”, Thomas Vikström’s mighty tenor with just a tinge of hard rock rasp on “El Primer Sol” — the list could go on. So much of this album feels fresh and new for the band, a spiritual renewal by embracing the past, a seemingly accidental forging of a new sound via the old axiom that you can never truly revisit the past again. I wonder if Christofer himself would be surprised at hearing a reaction like mine. Part of the beauty of nostalgia is melancholy, that longing for something that is elusive, but for me this album felt like a warm hug, it would always leave me strangely cheerful and hopeful in the moment, and that feeling would linger.
I think for most of the first half of this year, I didn’t really know what I was looking for in metal as a whole. Sure there were anticipated albums from veteran bands I’d spend time pouring over, but in the grand scheme of things, I would listen to new releases of all stripes and most of it was really not leaving a lasting impression. And as I stated above in my introduction, my purely melodic cravings were being satiated in a big way by another genre of music entirely, so the fact that power metal as a whole was having an underwhelming year was compounding my feeling of aimlessness. I think it was somewhere around late summer, while swimming in a sea of K-Pop, that I realized I was feeling an occasional deep yearning to hear something that was it’s spiritual and textural opposite. This timed perfectly with my being introduced to a handful of really spectacular black metal records from friends of mine (some of which I discuss below). But the one that shook me the most was the late fall release of Tales Of Othertime by Stormkeep, a relatively new symphonic black metal outfit from Denver (a realm of majestic, snow capped mountains of its own, take that Norway!). Stormkeep won me over with their perfectly blended mix of 90s era Dimmu Borgir, Satyricon, and Emperor put through a Blashyrkh filter. Vocalist Issac Faulk (aka Grandmaster Otheyn Vermithrax Poisontongue because hell, sure why not?) delivers maybe the most entertaining and convincing black metal vocal performance of the past decade, working with a delivery that mixes razor sharp blackened shrieking with a surprising amount of enunciative clarity. His approach reminds me of vintage Shagrath ala Enthrone Darkness Triumphant, with a splash of Abbath’s guttural depths, a combination that makes for narrative magic — he sounds like he’s embodying the hooded character on the album cover, standing mountainside and recanting something terrible to the wind. The beauty of this album is that despite said frosty artwork and the generally bleak tone that the band achieves when going full on black metal tremolo/blastbeat mode, there’s a surprising amount of warmth being radiated from these songs. I feel it seeping through in the audible hum of the bass, the very Euro-power tinge to the keyboard arrangements (some very Blind Guardian vibes happening in places, particularly in the transitions to quieter passages), and just in the overall theatrical approach the band is favoring in these richly varied compositions. This is a perfect symphonic black metal album, to my ears anyway. It reminds me of when I first heard records in this style way back in the day, and how it made me feel at the time: Entranced, mystified, and transported somewhere else. More than any other year in the history of writing this blog, I needed to be reminded of that feeling once again.
3. Duskmourn – Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns:
On a surprise recommendation from our notoriously non-metal music fan George Tripsas, I was introduced this past summer to New Jersey duo Duskmourn’s Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns, who tap into a combination of metal styles that reach down to the very roots of what made me an extreme metal fan in the first place. There’s artfully crafted melodeath-ian lead guitars adorning expansive yet rustic, at times gritty blackened folk metal ala the early aughts, and most importantly, these songs just reverberate with me in a very physical, visceral way. So much of what started to put me off on black metal over the past few years is when bands make things too obtuse, too dense, or just too lost in their own meandering train of thought to reach out to the listener and form any kind of connection (I’m looking at you Enslaved). But listen to the first minute of “Deathless” here”, hitting us with a mix of complex black metal riffing, an incense-scented Summoning inspired epic keyboard arrangement, only to suddenly break way into a slamming heavy metal riff with thundering toms. As Halford once sang, get me locked in, get me headbanging in my desk chair. When I first listened to this album in my car, I was pounding my fist on the steering wheel to these drums. That gorgeous lead guitar solo towards the end — I mean there’s a reason why this tune ended up on my best songs list. On the title track, we’re ushered along by a stirring, majestic keyboard arrangement that acts as a melodic guide as the band rages underneath with undulating riff progressions and Walter Deyo’s charcoal blackened melodeath vocals. He and fellow guitarist Bill Sharpe keep these songs moving just enough, happy enough to plug a great riff a few times because of course you should, but introducing sharp contrasting variations in the song structure to allow tension to build and release, for melodies to blossom and breathe. Listen to how “The Sleeping Tide” changes a multitude of times throughout it’s 5 minute plus run time, exploding in a primal, anguished riff sequence towards the end. There’s a real Moonsorrow influence lurking throughout this record that harkens back to what made that band so staggering to behold in their best moments, particularly in their balancing of raw, primal, blackened aggression with beautifully complex, melancholic melodies. This is the band’s third album, they’ve clearly been honing their craft unbeknownst to me of course, but they found me when I needed them the most.
Two things can both be true: That we all wish the tragedy that informed these past two StS albums (and Hallatar, and Trees Of Eternity) never occurred in the first place, and secondly, that guitarist and main songwriter Juha Raivio has managed to create astonishing art out of his very deep grief. And truth be told, I didn’t really think that he could better 2019’s When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light (one that year’s best albums), but there is a very particular and distinctive kind of magic about Moonflowers that might have it firmly in the conversation of being one of the best Swallow The Sun albums of all time. And this does feel like a musical sibling to …Shadow…, from the lengthy clean vocal melodies, to the dreamy, cosmos pondering atmospherics and wistful acoustic guitars. But despite the similarities, I feel like this album is the inverse of it’s predecessor, it’s emotional peaks landing not on it’s most violent, surging cuts, but in its more calmer, reflective songs. Take the album highlight “All Hallows Grieve”, where Oceans Of Slumber’s Cammie Gilbert joins Mikko Kotamäki on a sublimely haunting duet, it’s emotional refrain one of those moments where a beautifully written melody is elevated by an unforgettable performance. Then there’s “Keep Your Heart Safe From Me”, where despite the surprisingly Hope-esque riff to start things off, suddenly shifts into a Katatonia-like ebb and flow, finishing with as dazzling a guitar solo as I can remember on any StS album. And I really loved the weirdly Queensryche-ian vibes of “The Fight Of Your Life”, sounding like a distant cousin of “I Will Remember” or “Silent Lucidity”, Kotamäki’s vocals filled with a warmth despite all the ghostly effects put on his voice. This was a listening experience that required a bit more patience than …Shadow…, it’s pacing more subdued, it’s mood a little less anguished and violently reactive. It resulted in an album that seems out of time, particularly in the classical trio instrumental version that Raivio reworked, recorded by Trio Nox at Sipoo Church in Finland. I consider those pieces to be an extension of the album itself, instead of merely bonus tracks, because they have an entirely different emotional tenor to them despite working with mostly the same melodic structure. They made an already powerful album that much more emotionally engaging, and might be the most substantive “deluxe edition” addition in metal to date. To be sure, this was the most contemplative, inward looking album on this list in a year full of it’s exact opposite, a strange oddity that lived up to it’s namesake.
5. Fierce Deity – Power Wisdom Courage:
Every year there seems to be that band that comes out of nowhere and just levels me with a left hook through their awesomeness. Australia’s Fierce Deity was that band in 2021, it’s lone member Jonathan Barwick wowing me not only with this glorious masterpiece, but with his June release of The Trials Unmasked EP, a rustic, rootsy, Americana-informed reworking of his previous metal songs released over the past few years (you have to hear this one). I say songs because since Fierce Deity’s start in 2019, he’s been doing only digital single releases. But Power Wisdom Courage is his first all original EP release, a three track, 32 minute masterpiece that is his first complete statement, a fully realized musical journey that is audacious in its attitude, unapologetically trad metal, and tinged with a gorgeous streak of psychedelia. Of course you’ll likely recognize the album title as a reference to The Triforce from Zelda, and the band name pulled from a power-up found in Majora’s Mask, and to be sure, Barwick loves videogames and doesn’t shy away from hiding any it. He seems to occasionally go live on the Fierce Deity YouTube channel where he’s streaming himself playing and talking all things gaming (most recently seen playing Dark Souls III). But here on this record, he orchestrates a thunderous, bluesy hard rockin’ heavy metal assault with the kind of thick riffing that is at once anchoring and propulsive. How he manages to concoct an atmosphere that is rollicking as if a full band is jamming at once is beyond me, but even the drums, if indeed programmed, feel live and convincing. And this songwriting is enthralling, “Power” has a hook that won me over from the first time it graced my ears, and Barwick really understands how to write for his vocal type. He’s got a strong voice, full of character, a tone that registers more on the laid back, bellowing approach rather than the full throated going for the jugular attack of say Visigoth’s Jake Rogers. He describes his music as Stoner Power Metal on the Fierce Deity Bandcamp page, and that tag comes alive for me whenever the dreamy, stargazed atmospheric interludes pop up. They’re not distracting, they’re interwoven so deftly into the fabric of these songs that I can’t imagine them without, and their inclusion is a bold step for the band’s sound… moving beyond the more traditional metal approach heard on a cut like “Hearing Whispers” a few years ago. What excites me about Fierce Deity is that Barwick has found a truly authentic voice of his own, and it seems to have come naturally and without artifice. I love that he focuses on quality over quantity for his releases too, a concept I’ve seen work spectacularly well in K-Pop. Smaller focus, sharper execution. Make no mistake, this was the most exciting power metal release of the year.
6. Helloween – Helloween:
There was a moment there when I thought this would have sat atop this list at the end of the year. First off, it truly is one of the best albums released in 2021, and genuinely the best reunion album since Maiden shocked our collective faces with Brave New World (I know that there’s a few folks out there that would balk at this statement, sorry Dr. Metal!). That this record wasn’t an unfocused disaster given how it was constructed, with a multitude of band members taking turns handling songwriting duties over a pretty broad expanse of time, is quite frankly astonishing. Plans like this are supposed to result in plodding, mediocre messes, not an album that sounds like it was crafted with a laser focused precision by the band’s best songwriter. I was giddy on release night, staying up way too late to jam this over and over again, and it really was a euphoric experience to behold a veteran band hitting a grand slam this late in their career. That it sits here at number six on this list speaks more to the fact that I kinda burned myself out on it really quickly through the summer, and my other musical interests found myself reaching for more darker, abrasive forms of metal (see nearly everything else on this list) rather than the lighter shades found on this record. That being said, I still feel charged up when I hear “Out For The Glory”, an album opening, door-kicking in anthem that has one of the best Kai Hansen vocal drop ins ever. Michael Kiske and Andi Deris are incredible when they get to bounce off each other with vocal interplay as on “Fear Of The Fallen”, and Deris may have the best moment on the album on the ass-kicking “Mass Pollution”. I need to shout out one of my personal favorites here in “Down In The Dumps”, a song that is a sweet balance of Walls Of Jericho era riffing and latter day pop candy Helloween, with a chorus that I found myself shouting along to in car rides (a pretty good sign of my approval). Of course there’s the strange and utterly surreal “Skyfall”, a song that is so packed with classic Helloween charm that you can’t help but smile at it’s audacious nature, particularly that David Bowie invoking bit in the middle. Don’t let the positioning on this list fool you, I loved the heck out of this album, but there was just so much competition for my listening time that it slipped down the ladder a bit.
7. Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:
This was one of those sneaky records that quietly burned up a ton of my listening time without me truly realizing it until I started looking at my play counts. But seeing those stats immediately brought to mind memories of me jamming this on my headphones during nightly walks, in the morning on my commute, on the drive home from work, etc. It would pop up intermittently, a tonic for a craving for all things melodeath. I actually think I listened to so few melodeath records this year because I was spending all my time bouncing between this and Duskmourn. If you’re unfamiliar, Ulthima are a Finnish-Mexican six piece who hit that sweet spot of Finnish melodeath that pulls from Children Of Bodom, Norther, and a little splash of early Kalmah in the way they balance aggressive elements with major key chord sequences. Just like Fierce Deity, there is a tangible videogame influence shining through this music, with cuts like “Black Swan” reverberating with shades of the Castlevania OST that the album title is referencing. It goes without saying that the title track here is a musical ode to that game, and really does somehow pull in major videogame music vibes through it’s melodies without resorting to cheap trickery like a random chiptune drop in. There was just something very satisfying about the listening experience on Symphony Of The Night, it brought tons of ear candy in it’s ultra melodic riff sequences, skillful lead parts, and the vocalist here, one Tuomas Antila has a real early Petri Lindroos quality to his delivery that I guess I’ve been missing from the man himself in Ensiferum lately. I wish I had something more poetic or insightful to say about this one, but sometimes an album is one of the year’s best because it just plain rules hard.
I suspect this will be on many folks’ year end lists (I know they’re all out, I haven’t looked at any yet!), because it just has that unmistakable quality of being undeniable. This came to me by way of an emphatic recommendation from friend of the podcast Justin The Metal Detector, and I’ll be honest, at first I was unmoved when listening to it. But a realization I’ve come to this year is the art of timing when it comes to listening to a record, so rather than dismissing it, I waited until I felt the need to hear something like it. That eventually came crawling, a desire for something bleak, unforgiving, and brutal to work as a palette cleanser for my aural sugar overdose. And one morning with the headphones on at work, it happened, this album was the black metal celery stick I needed and I was blown away. I think what I really enjoy about this record is that its not all bottom end or alternatively, high end screeching, but a well engineered variance of both and everything in between. Groza’s lead guitars hit those tinny registers on emphatic, punctuating tail ends of riffs, but its purposeful, with an aim to lock you into a hypnotic rhythm. Meanwhile there’s a black tornado of a rhythm section pummeling away below. There is obviously a huge debt to Mgla (and Uada… Groza are big on wearing hoods too) here, and of course I’m sure comparisons are being made between the two groups in almost every article written about them. I have no opinion on the subject really, but I can say that no Mgla album had me coming back for repeat listens as much as The Redemptive End has. And maybe this is just a purely personal anecdote, but I loved this album for it’s straightforwardness and almost monotone nature, the latter a quality I’ve dinged other bands with as a negative before. I dunno how to explain myself on that one — I just needed this album this year, among other terrific black metal releases. My chief takeaway for 2021 metal wise is that I was thrilled to be thrilled about black metal again, because it had been a damn long time.
9. Seth – La Morsure Du Christ:
In my personal black metal renaissance this year, I listened to quite a few really impressive albums, some of which I won’t be talking about here at year’s end because you know, ten spots only. But during the process of elimination, I had a hard time trying to justify not including La Morsure Du Christ from France’s longtime black metal institution Seth. I’m a little disappointed in myself that I hadn’t known about these guys before, they’ve been around since 1995 and apparently had a comeback on Season Of Mist in 2013. Unlike other French black metal names like Alcest and Deathspell Omega and Blut Aus Nord, Seth prefer a more straightforward, obliterate everything in their path approach to black metal. Their sound owes a lot to Mayhem, and perhaps in contemporary terms, to Taake and Watain as well, a furious assault that frequently boils over into nigh utter chaos. What I found surprising then, given that sonic profile, was how listenable this album was. The production here is stellar. The mixing providing enough balancing between instruments to discern melodies that are pushed to the background by design, and for anchoring riffs to have enough visceral intensity right up front to prevent this from just turning into a wall of noise. There are certainly some Alcest vibes happening on the rhythmic structure in “Sacrifice de Sang” however, and in that spirit Seth display an eyebrow raising amount of variance within their songwriting throughout this album. My favorite of these random moments are the interjections of surprisingly lush, pristine beauty, often tucked away as an end of song palette cleanser, such as the serene acoustic guitar/piano lullaby at the end of “Hymne au Vampire (Acte III)”. France has been full of surprises on the metal front lately, across the spectrum of heavy music, and it was nice to be reminded of that yet again.
10. Epica – Omega:
What a massive surprise this was. Epica, a band that I had come to ignore over the years because every attempt to get into them fell flat, released an album that I genuinely thought was stellar. After Therion, it’s the next best symphonic metal album of the year, and certainly the best Epica album to my ears anyway (I have no frame of reference on whether or not most Epica fans share this opinion by the way). I think I was somewhat in denial about how much I liked this album at first, thinking to myself “Ah I just like a few songs here and there”, but when a “few songs” wind up being most of the damn album… even I had to check myself and give the band it’s due. This album edged out yet another black metal record for the final spot on this list, and I seriously considered leaving this off until I let the stats speak for me and realized this was one of my most listened to albums of the year. Being a late February release, it was also one of the few bright spots from the first half of this year, and it was something I would return to often throughout the rest of 2021. I suspect that what Mark Jansen and Simone Simons and company stumbled upon here is addition by subtraction, because correct me if I’m wrong, but this feels like a leaner, less orchestrally driven Epica. These songs are very riff forward, vocal melody driven affairs, with the symphonic elements shading in the colors around them with restrained, often scaled back arrangements. I realize that’s a silly thing to say about what is still essentially a symphonic metal album, but in my memory, Epica used to run amok with their reliance on that aspect of their sound, to the detriment of their songwriting. Maybe I’ll revisit their discography to find that I’m wrong about that and it’s only that I’ve unlocked my brain into enjoying what has always been their sound, but I suspect that I’m right — that the band has shifted their approach here in subtle but important ways. These are tremendous songs, “Seal Of Solomon” is a perfect juxtaposition of brutal and cinematic elements; “Abyss Of Time” wisely rides one of the band’s strongest melodies in my memory; and “Rivers” is incredibly beautiful, a song that stopped me in my tracks. A start to finish satisfying traditional symphonic metal listen, it’s nice to have my own perceptions of a band changed all these years into their career.
Here we are again, at the end of yet another long yet passingly short year, and this time celebrating not only the recent 10th anniversary of The Metal Pigeon blog, but also this being the tenth time I’ve published a best of list on this site. Its surprising to me that even after all these years, I keep refining the process by which I make my picks for both this songs list and the upcoming albums list. It used to be a very stats heavy process back in the iTunes era, where I could track play counts on my computer and my devices with minute detail. That was a reasonable way to go for awhile, but looking back on some of those past lists, I can see where it was weighing earlier in the year release dates far too heavily. Conversely, the modern day stats are found in our Last.fm trackers and of course the Spotify Wrapped feature that we were all sharing on December 1st, are tracking everything we’re listening to, thus its a lot harder to break down solely metal stuff. So I’ve found that over the past few years, I’ve been moving in a more subjective, personalized process of putting these together… asking basic questions like what were the songs that I kept remembering or craving to hear again? What song made the biggest emotional impact on me? You get the idea. I will say this year’s best songs list was a little more difficult to put together than usual. I normally aim for a nominee list of twenty-five songs and cut them down to my final ten, but honestly, this year the chosen ten were so readily apparent that I had them written on my list first and really, really struggled to find any other nominees. I guess in that sense it was relatively easy then, ten confident picks for what it’s worth.
1. Therion – “Tuonela”(from the album Leviathan)
Perhaps the band’s most effective single release since the Gothic Kabbalah era, “Tuonela” was the cannon shotthat signaled the band had returned with open arms to the familiar symphonic metal stylings that Christofer Johnsson had devoted a career to pioneering. The inclusion of ex-Nightwish bassist Marco Hietala on co-lead vocals alongside the wonderful Taida Nazraić is the song’s biggest strength, his rough hewn, richly textured voice a perfect foil for her elegant, almost effortlessly charming vocals. One of Johnsson’s most underrated strengths is his ability to know exactly what voice he needs for a particular song, I can’t think of a moment where he’s missed the mark throughout the band’s discography. The heavy strings presence here recalls memories of the classically driven Vovin era, while the dueling co-lead male/female vocals remind me strongly of the Mats Levin/Snowy Shaw/Katarina Lilja vocal melody dominant era. This song is perfectly balanced between metallic and symphonic elements, has an unforgettable violin melody anchoring that magnificent chorus, and those trademark Therion choral vocals that lift you to the heavens. A gem.
2. Seven Spires – “In Sickness, In Health”(from the album Gods Of Debauchery)
Brimming with the same resonant emotional power and dramatic sweep that characterized so much of 2020’s album of the year winner Emerald Seas, “In Sickness, In Health” was neck and neck with “This God Is Dead” as the most nigh perfect moment of an otherwise imperfect album. From the sparse, drifting piano notes in the intro to Adrienne Cowan’s appropriately anguished vocals in the chorus to Jack Kosto’s channeling of Use Your Illusion-era Slash esque lead guitars, this was a power ballad with a capital P. As is becoming all too clear with each release, Adrienne has developed into one of metal’s finest lyricists. Her use of strong, clear imagery highlighted with often sharp juxtapositions helps to paint pictures that immediately place you in beautifully dramatic scenes or emotional states. As glorious as her and Roy Khan’s duet was, particularly in the final few minutes of “This God Is Dead”, this song was where I felt the emotional apex of the album resided and left me, as they say, shook.
3. Steven Wilson – “12 Things I Forgot” (from the album THE FUTURE BITES)
On an album that was as difficult for most of his fans to accept, let alone process and enjoy, “12 Things I Forgot” was the lone reminder that when it came to heartstring plucking, nostalgia soaked emotion, no one does it better than Steven Wilson. Wilson calls this the album’s Fleetwood Mac love song moment, but I took this song as somewhat of a direct lyrical response to fans who would were going to understandably balk at the strange direction Steven had taken his solo career over these past two releases — not quite a mea culpa, but more of a message of understanding. When he sings “Something I lost / And I know what it meant to you”, particularly over chiming acoustic guitars and a cascade of lush “ooohhs” and “aaaahhhs” backing vocal layers, it could be interpreted as an acknowledgement of his attempts at distancing himself from the progressive tag. The irony of course, apart from this song sounding like it could have been plucked from 2000’s Lightbulb Sun, is that he announced the reformation of modern day prog-princelings Porcupine Tree later in the year and has already released new music from the band. So maybe I was reading too much into it, but lyrically it works both ways and is undoubtedly one of his most gorgeous songs to date.
4. Brainstorm – “Glory Disappears” (from the album Wall Of Skulls)
The strongest Brainstorm song I’ve heard in ages off the strongest Brainstorm album in a decade, “Glory Disappears” is a monster of a song, built on an almost power ballad like build and release. Andy B Franck is seemingly ageless, and his vocals here are structured in an incredibly impactful way, starting with a deeper, lower register ala Geoff Tate and exploding with shocking force by the time the pre-chorus rolls around. The hook during the refrain elevates this into an all-time Brainstorm classic, Franck’s emotive tenor grabbing your wrist and refusing to let go. In a year where new power metal releases as a whole were mostly underwhelming, it was reassuring to hear one of the genre’s more underrated veterans capable of delivering such a heavy hitting jam so late in their career. Also in a year where my tastes really gravitated to two very polar musical opposites, it was nice to remember that sometimes all it took to get the Pigeon’s feathers ruffled were some meaty guitars, a thundering rhythm section, and a vocal melody that burned right into my brain.
5. Unto Others – “Heroin” (from the album Strength)
The opening track from the newly dubbed Unto Others’ (formerly Idle Hands) second full length album, “Heroin” is a bruiser of a song, an unexpected cobra strike of sudden aggression. Singer/guitarist Gabriel Franco delivers his most desperate, intense vocal performance to date, complete with a more anguished scream to punctuate his lines than he ever barked out on their debut Mana. The MVP of this cut though is lead guitarist Sebastian Silva, whose insistent leads create an uneasy atmosphere of tension and danger. His solo midway through is a seething coil of discordant melodies that’s as energizing as it is discombobulating, and after all the prettiness he displayed all through their debut it’s kind of shocking to hear him paint something decidedly ugly and mean. For his part, Franco’s central riff here is devastating, a full on metal attack that not only set the tone for what was a far darker and more dour album than it’s predecessor, but also changed the way we’ll be perceiving this band’s capabilities from here on out. As he said in the lyrics, they gave it to us straight.
6. Therion – “Die Wellen der Zeit”(from the album Leviathan)
It’s rare that two songs from the same album end up on this list, I believe it’s only happened once before (with Orphaned Land way back in 2013), but “Die Wellen der Zeit” was too special of a song to ignore here at the end of the year. A delicate yet stately cinematic ballad built on bright, bursting orchestral grandeur and Taida Nazraić’s incredibly passionate soprano vocals, Therion paint with a kaleidoscope of colors here. This song floored me from my first pass through the album, and it continued to resonate with me throughout the year, ending up on my Spotify “Your Top Songs 2021” playlist that’s like 90% K-Pop (it’s been a weird year). Therion has had a tradition of delivering really moving ballads from “Siren Of The Woods” to “Lemuria”, but they struck upon something new and fresh here — a piece of music that was entirely ethereal and sounded like it was perpetually floating. The choral vocals provided by the Israeli choir Hellscore do a massive amount of heavy lifting, but it’s undoubtedly a star turn for Nazraić, who wasn’t even on most of our radars before her appearance on this album.
7. Ulthima – “Black Swan” (from the album Symphony Of The Night)
The opening cut from the debut album of Ulthima, a Finnish-Mexican melodeath band with serious neoclassical tendencies ala Children Of Bodom and Norther, “Black Swan” is a microcosm of what makes Symphony Of The Night one of the year’s most compelling listens. Setting aside the seriously excellent, ultra melodic guitar leads from Ricardo Escobar, this song is equally indebted to keyboardist Niko Sutinen’s propelling melodies. There’s an unapologetically old school nature to the crunchy, dense texture of the riffing here that reminds me of classic melodeath ala the early aughts, and everything is mixed so tightly to give it that satisfyingly visceral snap you want this style to have. Vocalist Tuomas Antila’s slightly blackened vox reminding me so much of the tone used by Ville Viljanen (Mors Principium Est) is just the icing on the cake.
Making their first appearance on any of my best of lists, Epica’s sublime piano-led ballad “Rivers” was the most compelling moment from one of the year’s most addictive symphonic metal albums in Omega. Of course vocalist Simone Simons’s truly haunting performance is the draw here, and she’s always been one of my favorite guest vocalists in various spots across a plethora of bands throughout the years. She has one of those voices that seems to be tailor made for emotive, often sparsely dressed ballads, and shrewd songwriters know how to utilize her talent — case in point here with Mark Jansen penning a song devoid of unnecessary nods to heaviness barring a little crunchy guitar boost up towards the end. There’s just something indefinably magical about “Rivers”, and it was one of those songs that I couldn’t ignore. I’d find myself longing to hear it again and then would let the album keep playing only to remember that everything else was plenty good to boot.
9. Harakiri For The Sky – “Us Against December Skies” (from the album Mære)
Although I didn’t think Mære was able to get out from under the immense shadow cast by its predecessor in Arson, it was still capable of producing moments that were downright transcendent. Chief among these was the awesome, majestic “Us Against December Skies”, one of those eight minutes feels like four minutes time dilating epics. I don’t think I’ll truly ever be able to put into words why Harakiri is able to effectively channel such powerful emotion with such an unceasing wall of noise. It has a lot to do with the fantastic lead guitar melodies and simultaneously juxtaposing tempos — but what really got the lump caught in my throat here was the sequence starting at the 3:40 minute mark, where the band stop everything momentarily only to pull back the rubber band over an awesome, simple repeating riff figure, building up the tension, only to release it and let the chaos begin again.
10. Duskmourn – “Deathless” (from the album Fallen Kings and Rusted Crowns)
Propulsive, meditative, and vicious all at once, Duskmourn’s “Deathless” was the sharpest thorn from an album that was rootsy and rustic, a fusion of earthy folk-metal and epic melodic death metal. I got major Summoning vibes from the woodwind instrumentation that careens over the tremolo and blastbeat intro passage. And the band channels major Insomnium vibes with those guitar leads at the six minute mark, a wash of color that is painted across the drab, brown-grey sky that predominates this track. Just like Harakiri above, Duskmourn seem to have an innate sense of when to scale everything back and just pound a quality riff to get you audibly centered and kick up your adrenaline level. There’s intelligence in the songwriting at work here, a knowing use of space to create ebbs and flows to break up the wall of sound, and in doing so, tell a story through brutal noise that is as gorgeous as it is melancholy.
Ten years ago, when I first started this blog, I had a boatload of ideas that I wanted to eventually get to after I had accumulated a decent amount of articles on the site, and found my writing voice so to speak. One of those ideas was to talk about my ults (to borrow a K-Pop term) — you know, my favorite records in this genre, that genre, of all time, you get the point. So to celebrate the 10th anniversary of this site, I’m finally (finally!) launching this in the form of The Metal Pigeon Essential Ten. The idea is simple. I’m presenting my picks for the ten essential albums that I feel best exemplify everything that I love about a certain subgenre. In other words, its by no means an attempt at an objective-ish list, but more a personal reflection of my own experience as a fan of this music. Of course we’re starting with power metal, because over the years I’ve written about my love for it likely more than anything else on this blog, and whittling what I love about this subgenre down to ten albums was not easy. But I like the number ten for lists, its easy to focus on for a reader, and for myself it forces me to make hard cuts and think about what I really have to include. These ten picks are sorted in alphabetical order by artist… hey look it was hard enough getting my list down to ten, don’t make me rank them. The prospect of finally getting around to this has been surprisingly rejuvenating, and a great excuse to go back and listen to albums that I haven’t heard in awhile but have meant a lot to me since I first did. Thanks for reading the blog any of these past ten years, can’t believe its been this long but I’m grateful it has.
Avantasia – The Metal Opera:
I think the first thing that someone might think when doing a quick scroll down through this list is “Where’s Helloween?”. Fair question. But I only have ten spots, and if I’m being honest with myself, as far as my personal experience with power metal goes, Helloween and Gamma Ray took a backseat to my rabid fanaticism for all things Tobias Sammet, particularly during that late 90s/early 00’s era. Released smack in the midst of the golden age of power metal™ (97-03 to be precise) in July 2001, the first Avantasia album was a monumental event in the power metal world. I had heard the single almost a year before in 2000 on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown (a Cleveland area college radio show hosted by Dr. Metal whose show introduced me to a ton of power metal) when Tobias himself called in for an interview. He talked about the guest vocalists, people from bands that I was largely unfamiliar with, but he did winkingly confirm one significant guest he called “Ernie”, who Dr. Metal later clarified as Michael Kiske. My personal hype leading up to this album was massive, I made it a mission to grab as many albums as I could from the guest vocalist’s respective bands, in the process becoming fans of Angra, Stratovarius, Virgin Steele, Impellitteri, At Vance, and Within Temptation. That was a process that carried over into The Metal Opera Pt. II released a year later, but it was the debut that lit the match on what was already a flammable pyre of growing obsession over all things European power metal.
While the sequel was fantastic in its own right, the debut had the kind of crackling magic that all these years later refuses to diminish. From the melancholic majesty of “Farewell” to the glory-fist inspiring “Sign Of The Cross” to the now iconic “Reach Out For The Light” with Kiske’s glorious voice. What Tobias did on The Metal Opera was essentially build on what Kiske and Helloween had pioneered on the Keeper albums, only made bigger and wilder, with a cast of strikingly different vocalists that gave this straight ahead epic power metal a grandeur that made it sound larger than life. In writing this, I’ve realized that no amount of words can give voice to just how massive an impact this record was for me, it nearly rivaled having discovered Blind Guardian. For sure Keeper I/II belong on the list of the most influential and/or greatest power metal albums of all time, I totally agree with that both as a metal fan and a self appointed historian. But for as much as I love those records now, at the time I viewed them as heavy metal records ala Maiden… power metal really wasn’t a widespread term until 97 or so, and I always associated it with newer bands coming out of Europe. An artist like Tobias who wore his influences on his sleeves made it apparent just how far into the future Helloween’s influence has reached. But Avantasia’s The Metal Opera was a special moment in time for me, and I can’t look back on power metal history without it being a blinding beacon shining back at me.
Blind Guardian – Nightfall In Middle Earth:
The never ending debate among not only Blind Guardian fans, but power metal fans in general is Imaginations or Nightfall? Because though Blind Guardian does have other great records, those two albums in particular have come to define the what is quintessentially great about the band. I’ve always felt that there is no wrong answer between the two, because there have been moments where I’ve considered Imaginations and thought that note for note it could be a stronger listening experience. But the reason why I’m placing Nightfall on this list over it is because of just how much it intersects at two of my major interests, namely Tolkien and epic power metal. This isn’t breaking news to anyone by now, but I’m sure that was the reason a lot of people got into Blind Guardian. But back in the day when I discovered the band shortly after Nightfall’s release, it was a major revelation to younger me, a shocking intersection that seemed only hinted at with stuff like Metallica’s nods to Lovecraft and Maiden with… all their various literary references. With Nightfall, Blind Guardian created a soundtrack to Middle Earth that I never knew could possibly exist, painting rich, theatrical aural drama for important vignettes from The Silmarillion. At the time concept albums were still a relative rarity, but the bards didn’t try to shoehorn in an entire plot into their songs. They used the existing literature as a diving board from which to write from specific character perspectives, tackle particular moments from complex scenes and flesh them out with narration, context, and internal monologues. The intricacy of the musical arrangements mirrored the pulse of the narrative — militant grandeur on “Time Stands Still”, anguish and loss on “Nightfall”, forlorn melancholy on “The Eldar”. Particularly impressive for source material that read more like a biblical history rather than a typical fantasy adventure, Nightfall’s songs were intensely emotional, full of haunting imagery in its lyrics and utterly convincing passion from Hansi Kursch’s vocals.
On a side note, this album got me to finally tackle The Silmarillion, which I had previously disregarded as too difficult to read. All these years later, and it’s one of my most read books (if not the most read), with me doing yearly readings right around this time of year for quite a few years in a row. I love everything about it now, as a flawed but still rather perfect piece of literature, and it took Nightfall to get me to appreciate that. I also still consider the album to be one of the finest storytelling moments in power metal, nearly equaled only by Kamelot’s Epica, together both albums illuminating a dearth of competition that is oftentimes disappointing to consider. It has also, after what has to be in the thousands of listens after all these years, still retained the same vibrancy and freshness that it did when I first heard it. Honestly I can’t even say that about a few old classic Maiden albums, and they’re my favorite band. Andre Olbrich’s leads in “Mirror Mirror” still get my adrenaline pumping even if I’m sitting in my desk chair, Hansi’s screamed “Fear my curse!” on “Noldor” still raises the hair on my arms, and the chorus of “Into The Storm” is still the most spirited, spitting defiance singalong moment, even if I’m by myself in the car. So again, you might think Imaginations deserves to be here, and I couldn’t fault you for it, but Nightfall is iconic to me, that cover art, the depth of what the band accomplished here — it’s a power metal essential, even if you tend to skip the interludes.
Edguy – Mandrake:
It’s a testament to Tobias Sammet’s impact on my power metal fandom that he’s landed on this essentials list twice, and you could say 2001 was a great year for him on an artistic level. Just over two months after he dropped The Metal Opera, Tobias delivered Edguy’s fifth and finest album in Mandrake, the point where the band’s sound was still cut from the classic Helloween inspired power metal cloth of 1999’s Theater Of Salvation, but tempered with an arena ready production complete with fuller, deeper guitar tones and a thicker bottom end. These sonic adjustments were paired with his most going for the jugular approach to songwriting yet, delivering bangers like “Golden Dawn” and the bruisingly heavy “Nailed To The Wheel”. An epic opener like “Tears Of A Mandrake” and the ultra-catchy “All The Clowns” blossomed into iconic power metal classics. Even an adventurous set piece like “The Pharaoh” saw Tobias growing into a confident, accomplished craftsman, capable of holding our attention for ten minute chunks, layering compelling sequences one after another, foreshadowing some of the great epics he’d deliver throughout his career afterwards. He also brought Edguy right up to the edge of a more AOR steeped approach, with “Painting On The Wall” being a seminal moment in their career — still power metal in spirit but dressed up in Magnum and Europe outerwear. And on an album so leaden with somber toned material (despite the major key choruses, this was a much darker album than Theater was or even The Hellfire Club after it) Tobias snuck in a satisfying bit of Helloween inspired cheek in “Save Us Now”, the type of thing that in lesser hands would stick out terribly. Even the ballad here, long a bane of many a power metal fan, “Wash Away The Poison” saw him still writing with that traditional power metal frame of mind, preferring lyrics about self-realization and discovery over the romantic overtures that would come later.
In summation, Mandrake was the first fully realized culmination of Tobias Sammet as one of the genre’s foremost songwriters. In a career full of great songs before and after, it was track for track his strongest overall effort, and it was also in so many ways the swansong of his power metal era too. The hard rock influences came to the forefront one album later and never really left, even in latter day Avantasia where classic power metal only rears it’s head in fits and spurts. I know for my part, that’s a big reason why I tend to view 2003 as a closing of the classic power metal era, because when you have one of the heavy hitters in a songwriting sense drifting away from that classic style, it’s a signal that something has ended, or at the very least, changed irreparably. Recently on albums like Ghostlights and Moonglow, Sammet has shown glimpses and flashes of the return of some classic power metal trappings of the Mandrake era, but hardly anything full on or overtly Helloween attuned like Mandrake was. Of course that doesn’t mean that they’re inherently inferior, I think we’ve all grown accustomed to the change that’s occurred to Tobias’ songwriting approach over the years. It’s entirely possible that he felt Mandrake was as far as he could go in the classic power metal mode and still write compelling music. I think it’s also why I regard this album with a tinge of sadness, because despite it’s magic, it was the end of something special instead of the beginning.
Dragonforce – Sonic Firestorm:
Many if asked which was the most impactful Dragonforce album to date would cite either the band’s debut Valley Of The Damned or the truckload selling Inhuman Rampage with it’s improbable Billboard Hot 100 hit “Through The Fire And The Flames”. I hate dating myself here, but I very much remember listening to the band when they were known as Dragonheart with their demo on the ancient version of mp3.com. It created a stir not only for the awesome songs and dizzying guitarwork, but for the ease of which word of mouth spread thanks to it’s digital format. It was really the first time I remember seeing a band blow up thanks to their music being online, and they parlayed that into an actual record deal and released a debut that was pretty strong. The thing we forget about that album though is that the band hadn’t yet introduced the sonic elements that would rock the world three years later on Inhuman Rampage and er… Guitar Hero. Those elements would be introduced on their sophomore album, the utterly inspired, damn near perfect yet tragically overlooked Sonic Firestorm. Hypersonic riffing, wildly complex extended guitar solo passages, and aggressive black metal-esque blast beats spearheading an absolute battery of percussion courtesy of former Bal-Sagoth drummer Dave Mackintosh. Where Valley was sonically hampered by a slightly muddy production, Sonic Firestorm sounded crisp and clean, a textural facet of the recording that helped its various elements have a visceral impact. Upon release the band was describing this album as “extreme power metal”, and despite that being a bit of cheeky marketing, it was also kinda true, Sonic Firestorm saw them pushing the boundaries of what power metal was expected to sound like.
Of course, the songs were what really mattered, and Sam Totman delivered some of his most inspired songwriting ever with key assists from fellow guitarist Herman Li and keyboardist Vadim Pruzhanov. They burst out the gates with “My Spirit Will Go On”, one of the greatest opening cannon shots in power metal history, a song that perfectly married epic ambition and length to an unforgettable hook and iconic lead guitar melody. It’s the first in a salvo of absolute bangers, followed by the aptly named “Fury Of The Storm”, one of vocalist ZP Theart’s best individual moments — he had a knack of sounding indefatigable even on lengthy vocal sequences at higher registers. My personal favorite might still be “Fields Of Despair” however, where the melancholic undertones of the key change during the chorus give the song an emotional weight that lives up to the song title. People were captivated by the band’s razzle dazzle (rightfully so), but I often found that their songwriting had moments of poignancy and complexity, tempered of course by the fact that the lyrics were essentially syllabically oriented vocal filler (not a criticism mind you, think of it as grim vocals are to black metal — texture!) This was seven breathtakingly paced tracks with the right mix of aggression and melodic nuance with satisfyingly hooky riffs and melodies, and one pretty piano based ballad that sounded divine on afternoon drives with the sun setting through your windshield. Dragonforce would make strong records long after this, deliver some incredible tunes here and there, but they never sounded as hyper focused as they did here.
Falconer – Falconer:
Rising from the ashes of folk-metal pioneers Mithotyn, Sweden’s Falconer released their self-titled debut in 2001 just as folk-metal had found its footing, and smack in the midst of the golden era of power metal™, and their rootsy, gritty, often medieval music inspired sound fused the two subgenres together to create something new. One could argue that they were building on the foundations created by England’s Skyclad, but there was a distinct Scandinavian-esque quality to Stefen Weinerhall’s songwriting, both in Mithotyn and in Falconer. His focus was on incredibly rich melodies as a counterpoint to a startling dose of heavy riffage and aggressive, at times extreme metal inspired percussion. The melodies found their way through fluid lead patterns and glorious soloing of course, but also through the unorthodox vocalist the band had stumbled onto in Mathias Blad. He had no metal nor rock background, being a stage actor by trade in Sweden who had spent time studying in England, and his approach on record reinforced that. Blad certainly sang for Falconer with passion, but he didn’t project his voice in the way a metal singer would, with an increase of power or volume — his voice was naturally delivered, without exaggeration or projecting a “metal” attitude, as if he was simply on a theater stage somewhere. On Falconer, he was a revelation, carrying the narrative weight of Stefan’s lyrics and songwriting through sheer talent alone, his baritone deep and sonorous, and his phrasing crystal clear and fluid. I remember the exact moment I heard him for the first time on WRUW’s Metal Meltdown, stunned that a singer fronting a power metal band could sound so different from what was expected, yet fit so perfectly within the context of the band’s music.
The compositions on this album were magical, the kind of stuff that seemed to seep in from another world far removed from our mundane reality. To this day I can’t tell you what exactly Mathias is singing about in “Mindtraveller”, but I damn well feel that song in my gut, it’s been an all-time classic for me (and many others I’m sure), and among friends of mine, the term mindtraveller has become both an adjective and a noun. The looser, more brightly uptempo songs were loaded with ear candy; the layered “woooaaahhs” in “Royal Galley”; that fat bass line laid down by Weinerhall that anchors “Lord Of The Blacksmiths” into an unexpected but awesomely funky groove (only surpassed by the rings of a hammer striking hot iron!); and the subtle backing vocals by Ulrika Olausson on the ethereally beautiful “Wings Of Serenity” drip melancholy all over the song’s bridge sequence. I was always deeply impressed with just how vicious and batteringly heavy Falconer could sound. The sheer assault that occurs upon the opening instrumental bars of “Upon The Grave Of Guilt” could pass for the intro to a blackened folk metal tune before Mathias’ sweeps in. They’d surpass that level of heaviness on later songs such as “Pale Light Of A Silver Moon” off Among Beggars And Thieves, and entire albums like Armod, but they didn’t have to work their way up there or slowly introduce these elements to their sound over time. Album one, song one, and we were shown that Falconer would make a career of being beautifully mystical, often elegantly pretty, and also downright mean and punishing. The band would deliver other incredible records… one could make a case for Chapters From A Vale Forlorn being on this list, but the debut was so unexpected and made such a deep impression on me. They released their swansong last year, a capstone on a magnificent career, and went their separate ways — sadly still underrated and overlooked.
Hammerfall – Glory To The Brave:
Of course this was going to be here, not only for the obvious reasons that it was the album that kickstarted power metal as a recognized genre in earnest back in 1997 (remember friends, power metal as a term wasn’t really utilized as we know it today back when the Keeper records were released), but also for the simple reason that this album flat out rocks. Unlike Dragonforce six years later, who’d merge power metal’s Helloween engineered template with elements of speed and extreme metal, Hammerfall’s birth was a firmly resolute nod to the traditional heavy metal of the past, albeit trading in the screaming, rougher vocals of legends like Halford and Dickinson for the cleaner tone and delivery of Joacim Cans. It’s success across continental Europe opened doors for so many other bands to get signed and recognized, but unto itself, Glory To The Brave was a bracing, spectacular celebration of everything that made heavy metal great. I’ve always felt strongly that one of the keys to what made Hammerfall’s first two albums incredible was the relatively hidden influence of one Jesper Stromblad, who contributes here as a songwriter. He was at the peak of his riff writing powers during this era, having knocked out In Flames’ The Jester Race a year before, Whoracle in this same year, and Colony two years later. His influence is heard in the sheer melodeath-ian density of the riffs heard across this album, despite him not playing on the album. Guitarist Oskar Dronjak had been bandmates with Stromblad in Ceremonial Oath, and you get the feeling that both of their extreme metal roots crept into the approach towards Hammerfall — in the writing process those riffs were molded to be compact and intense, and it showed through in Dronjak’s and then In Flames guitarist Glenn Ljungström’s performances on the album. They’d shake this melodeath influence three years later on Renegade, shifting to a more permanent Priest/Helloween mix, and thus would never recapture the magic found on Glory To The Brave or its sequel Legacy Of Kings.
Then there’s just the full on triumph and glory claw inducing splendor of these songs; “The Dragon Lies Bleeding” is built on one of the most insistent and urgent power metal riffs of all time, with Cans delivering an emphatic and powerful vocal performance; and the album is bookended by its polar opposite, the beautiful power ballad title track with its echoing leads, and confidently articulate acoustic guitars reminiscent of the Scorpions’ finest ballads. It’s a toss up as to whether “Hammerfall” or “Stone Cold” is the most rockin’ cut here, the latter built on a Priest-ian attack and possessing an understated menace in it’s steady march whereas the former is a Helloween inspired banger that shows off the band’s melodicism in sharply vibrant ways. I loved the band’s audaciousness too, the pride of being a metal band playing metal tunes that was exemplified in “The Metal Age”, whose admittedly silly lyrics were still the kind of Manowar-ism that I felt an affinity towards. Even a song ostensibly about the Crusades such as “Steel Meets Steel” could be parlayed into a metal anthem, and there was something comforting about being a fan of such deeply uncool music yet hearing the band themselves proclaim it’s power as something righteous and worthy to be proud of. Such sentiments seem gauche in 2021, but they kinda mattered in the late 90s/early 00s. That kind of fervent belief made a dreamy ballad like “I Believe” ache with a resonance that lesser bands couldn’t manage. The capper on this excellent album was the inclusion of their awesome Warlord cover in “Child Of The Damned”, a direct line to one of the subgenre’s USPM grandfathers from the early 80s. It was an unapologetic nod to the past that was only fitting for an album that revived not only a sound, but a feeling.
Kamelot – Epica:
A landmark in power metal for its elevation of storytelling, lyrical diction, and songwriting, Kamelot’s Epica was part one of a two album long exploration of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, the tragic German play. Vocalist Roy Khan and founding guitarist Thomas Youngblood created their own storyline and characters closely resembling those in the original, and with wiggle room for artistic liberties. There are a lot of fans who will argue in favor of The Black Halo being more deserving of praise in a head to head comparison, and while I do love that album and it’s overall darker atmosphere, Epica has always sounded sharper to me from a songwriting perspective. By this point in Khan’s tenure with the band, he had already meshed with Youngblood as a major songwriting contributor and had put his stamp on two bonafide power metal classics in The Fourth Legacy and Karma. While his lyric writing and vocal performances on those albums were turning heads and keeping his name at the forefront of many power metal fans minds, Epica was his and the band’s most astonishing masterwork. Getting to inhabit a character for an entire album, Khan’s imagination ran wild and he managed to pen most of the lyrics and narrative storyboarding before the music was composed. This meant the songs took on even more of a vocal melody driven direction than before, the music often reactive to Khan’s phrasing and tempo choices, such as on the slow build of “The Edge Of Paradise” where Youngblood’s guitar is solely responsive to Khan’s vocal line. Song structures were often inventive out of narrative necessity, something that Khan made work due to crafting impeccable vocal melodies to keep one’s attention fixed while the Miro engineered symphonic elements (the “Rodenburg Symphony Orchestra”!), Gregorian chants, choir vocals, and guest lead vocals fluttered around or darted in and out. Just like Blind Guardian’s Nightfall, Khan and Youngblood had the benefit of having the source material available in literary form as a reference for both themselves and listeners, and as a result the songwriting was freed of the burden of exposition.
On the brilliant “Lost & Damned”, an accordion sways in a Parisian tango during the verses in a sad, sympathetic melody as Khan’s character says goodbye to the love of his life, a surprising choice that works so well it’s one of the album’s finest moments. The ballads were also magnificently constructed, “Wander” sounding warmly like the flower-scented, dewy air its lyrics spoke of, all romance and mystery; while “On The Coldest Winter Night” sounds like snowfall and warm fires, befitting the emotional scene that’s occurring between the two characters Ariel and Helena. I’ve written about Khan’s poetic lyrical diction at length, but its worth reiterating here that his way with words is one of the reasons this album is on this list. Khan was able to inhabit his characters’ inner monologues, craft elegant dialogue and paint his scenes with richly evocative imagery that brought this storyline to life and made you care about the characters. There was a visceral quality to a line such as “meet me by the wishing well / in cover of the moon”, a lyric that paints a scene as clearly as a sentence in a fantasy novel. But it wasn’t all extravagant instrumentation and romantic balladry, Kamelot brought thrilling majesty to the fore in the straight-ahead power metal of “Farewell”, where Khan married melancholy to gritty determination and crafted a chorus made of steel. And “Center Of The Universe” was peak classic era Kamelot at it’s finest, a dynamic masterpiece with alternating tempos and an ascending buildup that exploded in a euphoric, skyward reaching refrain, cut through with a mid-song bridge with Mari Youngblood on vocals that elevated everything to high drama. Khan would of course leave Kamelot a few albums later, and the band would never be the same, but they had a run there with four classic albums in a row with him at the helm and this was undoubtedly the apex.
Power Quest – Neverworld:
What do we love about power metal? There has to be more to it than the surface level stuff like catchy tunes, epic melodies, soaring vocals and bursting guitar solos. Underneath all of that wizardry is an emotional pulse behind a lot of this music, at least it’s always been that way for me. At it’s best, it can be mental armor to help you deal with the shrapnel that life sometimes explodes at you, as I found out first hand last year when the pandemic hit and everything changed and I found myself cobbling together the massive anti-anxiety power metal playlist on Spotify that kinda saved me all those weeks when I was worried about anything and everything. Power Quest has always been one of those bands who I’ve turned to for comfort listening whenever I needed a bit of spirit lifting, and truth is that I could make a personal case for their incredible Master Of Illusion album to grace this list as well. But those in the know understand that the band’s absolutely undeniable masterpiece is 2004’s Neverworld. It’s cohesive sound is perhaps the finest encapsulation of the genre’s ability to radiate warmth and indefatigable optimism, not only as an act of defiance, but as an affirmation of life itself. There are loads of power metal bands that write lyrics that aim to express something in that vein, but few that manage to sound convincingly bright, ethereal, and determined as Steve Williams and company did here. Power metal artists that play with this kind of palette, like PQ’s contemporaries in Freedom Call, tend to get criticized for the lightness of their approach, but I’ve always thought of it as extremity in reverse, pushing the sound of metal in the opposite direction of say black metal while still retaining undeniably metallic sonic elements. Much of that comes from Steve’s heavy keyboard synths, sweet and syrupy and clearly inspired by the classic early 80s tones heard on Van Halen’s 1984 and classic AOR bands of that era. He steeped that influence into the classic power metal mold ala Helloween and found the voice that seemed to just barely elude him on their debut.
I remember listening to this album as I commuted to university, getting up at 6am just to take the long route across the city to dodge traffic, sitting in my car in the empty parking lot while listening to “Temple Of Fire” to wake up and motivate myself to face being there all day until long after dark. I’d take long de-stressing drives after work while blasting the album start to finish, marveling at how it seemed made of all razor sharp edges and some of the most glorious power metal guitar ever courtesy of the ever underrated Andrea Martongelli. And vocalist Alessio Garavello, then just a new found wunderkind from Italy, delivered one of the most fired up, intensely acrobatic vocal performances heard on any power metal album ever, full of personality and as I’ve always described it, perfectly imperfect approaches to cadence and delivery. Beyond the performances however, at it’s core it was the songwriting that made Neverworld special. A song such as “When I’m Gone” was painted with wistful sunset sky melancholia, and it’s gentle, innocent melody legitimately made you ache. The uplifting chorus outro sequences in “Into The Light” were seemingly powered by sunlight, and the stormy, dramatic buildups in the epic “Lost Without You” were made buoyant by layers of brilliant harmony vocals. And my favorite cut, “Edge Of Time”, one of the most perfect power metal songs ever written, with it’s iconic opening keyboard intro and rockin’ Scorpions-esque riff, and as gloriously powerful a chorus as can be imagined. Steve wrote songs on this album that were dewy eyed and hopeful, at once preciously fragile and unyieldingly strong, and full of an almost spiritual, life affirming breath that you’d gulp in like your life depended on it.
Sonata Arctica – Silence:
There’s an argument to be made that it’s a coin flip between this or Glory To The Brave as the greatest power metal debut album of all time, as both are astonishing classics in their own right on a musical level. But I’ll give the edge to Sonata Arctica, because what they managed on Silence went beyond Hammerfall’s spirited resurrection of traditional heavy metal, with the Finns pushing the genre into an emotional territory not yet explored by any power metal band. They took the sonic template created by their fellow countrymen and power metal pioneers in Stratovarius, and through it further explored the inward facing lyrics that Helloween only scratched the surface of. Vocalist and songwriter Tony Kakko favored storytelling through vignettes, often ones that were tragically romantic or explored even darker emotions like isolation or loneliness. Fantasy themes could be interwoven in his songs or discarded entirely for a more realistic setting, Kakko seemed unmoored from power metal’s tropes, often penning lyrics that used unorthodox diction for the genre. I suspect it was no coincidence that he and Tuomas Holopainen were friends and were encouraging each other in their musical pursuits, particularly around this era, and that we’d hear a similar lyrical shift in Nightwish’s music away from fantasy themes to deeply personal topics. In retrospect, given what we now know about the introspective music of Finnish mainstays like Amorphis and Insomnium, it seems obvious to say that it must be a “Finnish thing”. Yet at the time, Stratovarius and Hanoi Rocks was really the only thing the world knew about metal from Finland, and I remember being unable to pinpoint and articulate why Silence and it’s follow-up Ecliptica felt so different from anything else out there (in fact, I think it took discovering Sentenced shortly afterwards for me to begin to realize what made the Finns tick). Power metal had developed as music that was bombastic, defiant, and at times uncomfortably macho, and here was a band who turned that attitude on it’s head — introducing vulnerability, sensitivity, and uncertainty while marrying it to a sound that still soared despite it all.
I think we also now realize in retrospect that guitarist Jani Liimatainen was the perfect foil to Tony’s unorthodox approach to power metal songwriting, particularly in light of his work in Cain’s Offering and more recently Dark Element. His razor sharp riffs and classically inclined melodic sensibilities were the guide rails that kept these songs firmly planted in Timo Tolkki inspired power metal territory. We’ve heard where Tony has taken the band’s sound in a post-Liimatainen era, and while modern day Sonata Arctica still attempts to maintain links to it’s power metal heritage, it’s clear they’ve drifted away from it as a whole. But here on Ecliptica, these roots were strong, and on classics like the face melting “Blank File” and “UnOpened”, Jani’s driving attack kept Tony (who was handling keyboards back then, remember?!) in a more Jens Johansson-esque role as a keyboardist, sticking to tried and true Malmsteen derived classical guitar/keyboard duo formulas. On more mid-tempo paced cuts such as “My Land”, keyboards were creatively used as a rhythmic device with Jani’s guitar coming in as a counterpoint, creating an effect that conjured up wild, barely restrained passion. The most emotional moments on the album however were found in the far more introspective songs; the aching, forlorn “Replica” where Tony spoke about an “empty shell inside of me”; or the uptempo “Kingdom For A Heart” with possibly the most dramatic reaction to heartbreak ever realized in song lyrics. On the bonus version we were treated to one of the band’s finest songs, “Mary-Lou”, an achingly beautiful sad song made sadder on the acoustic version that was released on the Orientation EP a year later. The gem of all gems here is of course “Full Moon”, one of the greatest power metal songs ever written, no explanation needed. I’ll never forget seeing the band live a few years back, when a pair of arms crossed tattooed guys who had been watching the show stoically all night finally broke out in a euphoric sing-along to this song during the encore. You couldn’t write a better endorsement.
Tad Morose – Modus Vivendi:
Often overlooked and sometimes forgotten, Tad Morose’s Modus Vivendi deserves to be regarded as one of the genre’s masterworks. Eschewing shimmering melodies for crushing Nevermore-ian heaviness, Modus Vivendi worked not only for the straight ahead chugging dual guitar attack of Christer Andersson and Daniel Olsson, but for the majestic, towering vocal performance of Urban Breed. He had been with the band for a handful of albums before this one, but this was where he really demonstrated why he should be in any conversation for greatest power metal vocalists. His role as the narrator of a daunting conversation about death on “Afraid To Die” was not only a stunning display of his mastery as a lyricist, but also for his dramatic vocal choices — where to add emphasis, how to phrase each line, the way he’d bend specific words and in doing so give them extra power. His staggering performance on “No Mercy” made it an all-time classic, his vocal on the chorus coming at you like Mike Tyson’s right uppercut, pure intensity and heavy metal fury. His no holds barred approach to the vocals was how it had to be. How else to go blow for blow with the muscled up heavy metal attack loaded into every riff and in the pounding aggression of the rhythm section. Andersson and company were certainly creating power metal, these were richly melodic songs with mostly soaring hooks, but they tempered them with elements of doom metal to darken the overall tone and slow down the pacing. And the band’s penchant for progressive metal was infused throughout their approach to displaying their more technical leaning tendencies in fits and bursts, still allowing the trad metal approach to steer the songwriting around any self-indulgent potholes.
There was also songwriting depth involved here. Nothing revolutionary, but just a sustained implementation of sheer creativity in how these songs were constructed. Take the Egyptian motifs that run throughout “When The Spirit Rules World”, how they seem to be leading the song in a certain direction only for the band to abruptly switch gears for the starkly Queensryche-ian refrain. And then there’s the lumbering thick boy in “Cyberdome”, built on as menacing a groove based riff as you’ll hear in power metal, where the band willingly halts its strut by coming to a near standstill on the utterly spartan pre-chorus. It’s so rare to hear a band execute risky ideas like these and somehow make them seem as part of the masterplan all along. Even on relatively straightforward cuts like “Anubis” and “Take On The World”, the band doesn’t take the easy route, loading its verses with shifting, alternating riff sequences and aggression levels, the rhythm section working overtime to keep you guessing. This album was Urban’s swan song with the band, he’d move onto Bloodbound for a spell and do really great work with them. For the band, it took them a decade to recover and come back with new music, and despite having a fairly good singer in Ronny Hemlin onboard, they haven’t come close to the greatness they stumbled onto here. There’s nothing flashy about Modus Vivendi, but that’s its centralized strength — its perfectly crafted from start to finish, one of the most viscerally satisfying power metal albums you could imagine.
Back in the spring, despite the presence of a few standout records that made a big impact on me, I felt like I was in a rut with metal for the first time in years. It kinda freaked me out a bit, and one thing led to another and I found myself falling down the rabbit hole of an entirely unexpected genre of music that I had previously dismissed as either not for me, or worse, as disposable (wrong on both accounts!). The last time I was burned out on metal (over a decade ago if memory serves), I binged hard on alternative country like Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, The Jayhawks, Calexico, Cowboy Junkies, etc. for months and months. When I had my fill, I came back to metal with a newfound appreciation for all things heavy, as well as an armful of fantastic new non-metal music I could return to when the mood struck (and an appreciation for a genre I didn’t know I’d enjoy). I still listen to those artists/records today, albeit not at binge worthy levels. This time around, I found myself back in early May curiously stumbling into the world of K-Pop in earnest, my only real experience with it beforehand limited to listening to a few Blackpink songs here and there.
I’ve always been a fan of hooky melody soaked, unique pop music, but lately I had found that I was unable to find newer (Western) pop artists whose music was engaging enough to me. I guess it was a combination of wanting newer music in this vein plus needing a metal break that prompted me to check out a recommended YouTube video for a R&B K-Pop group called Mamamoo doing a medley of their songs in a studio — and that did it, I had to find out more. After binging on Mamamoo’s discography in Spotify, I found a few other metal fans with K-Pop interests and they pointed me towards an armful of recommendations. Four months later, and I can have conversations about IU, Red Velvet, f(x), Wonder Girls, Dreamcatcher, (G)I-DLE, Sunmi, Punch, Infinite, etc., etc. Of course they got the Pigeon treatment, that being a deep dive into discographies and biographies in the same manner through which I know way too much about Iron Maiden and Therion, and can recite the chart positions of all of Queensryche’s albums from 83-97. I discovered that while there’s a fair share of disposable pap in K-Pop (same as there is in Western pop), there’s also artists like the ones I mentioned above that are barreling out the gates with some of the most sophisticated, complex, and genre bending pop music I’ve ever heard.
Then there’s the weird world of all the “content” that goes with it, in the form of variety shows, behind the scenes, vlogs, travel documentaries (yes), and anything else you could think of. I say weird because not even the biggest Western pop artists provide their fans anything close to the staggering amount of access that K-Pop does by seemingly the default standard operating procedure. From seeing members of these groups battle against actors and actresses on a show like Battle Trip (where audiences vote on which team had the best vacation experience, which is of course documented on film); to the truly surreal Secret Unnie (where a younger star is paired with an older star for twenty-four hours in an attempt to form a lasting “unnie-dongsaeng” bond. Its all wild and bewildering stuff to behold. So while immersing myself in this world, I kept hold of a tether to metal, making time for standout moments like the recent Helloween reunion album and a handful of other interesting things worth investigating. One of the side effects of listening to nonstop pop music was that in August I found myself having days where I craved heaviness and aggression. To quote a tweet by @riffspreader, “Death metal hits different when you haven’t listened to anything heavy in 6 months. Damn!”.
He’s right about that, and I was reminded of that when I went to my first live show since October of 2019 in the middle of August to see Goatwhore with Necrofier and Frozen Soul. It was a fantastic, cathartic, and downright healing experience to not only see and hear live metal again, but to feel it’s visceral impact via the vibrations of battering kickdrums in one’s ribcage and to feel the vibrations underneath as riffs reverberated around the room and people slipped on beer in the circle pit next to you. Frozen Soul really stood out that night, their frontman Chad Green pounding the stage with his round-based mic stand for punctuating emphasis as the band delivered an inspired performance worthy enough to be compared to Obituary for live death metal excellence. I couldn’t stop listening to their 2021 Crypt Of Ice record after that gig, and really all throughout August I’ve found myself back in the saddle metal-wise with an armload of new music that I’m genuinely excited about and hooked on.
So in concluding this rather self-indulgent essay, this time around I’m taking a minor break from reviewing what I’ve been listening to lately. Instead just consider the records below as my honest recommendations instead (with a helpful YouTube video provided!), a whole cornucopia of metal from varying subgenres that brought me back into the fold after months and months of listening to some pretty awesome shimmery pop music (seriously, if you want to talk about K-Pop hit me up, I have many opinions!).
Operus – Score Of Nightmares:
I’m glad I somewhat accidentally stumbled onto these guys, because this was a release from 2020 that I genuinely missed anyone talking about for the last year until very recently. This band is conjuring up music that sounds like someone smashed up some Kamelot with Carach Angren, resulting in a very theatrical, wildly musical take on progressive power metal. The singer here, David Michael Moote, is a musical theater actor for his day job, bringing to mind one Mathias Blad of Falconer and I can actually hear minor similarities in how they both approach their role singing for a metal band. Moote does seem far more ingrained with metal music than Blad ever did (not a knock on Blad mind you, that was part of his charm), because he absolutely tears it up on some of these songs with the kind of full on power metal fury that they deserve. What’s really keeping me coming back however is the sheer musicality flowing through all these songs — the odd use of violins in place of guitars for solos, the inventive rhythmic approaches taken on many of the songs, and just the sense that this music sounds like it was meant to be acted out on stage far more than just your typical power metal album.
Frozen Soul – Crypt Of Ice:
So I mentioned above in the intro essay a little about Frozen Soul’s set that I caught back in mid-August here in Houston, namely, that they were awesome, and they made me remember in an instant everything that is good and pure about seeing live music (particularly feel it in your chest metal shows). But its worth mentioning that Crypt of Ice is as compelling a death metal album as I’ve heard in ages, it’s like I’m transported back to the mid-90s in that era before death metal went through it’s era of being largely over technical or worse, over produced. This album just has the right amount of Wendy’s burger wrapper grease on a Beavis and Butthead t-shirt vibes — the sound of a band who care as much about headbanging worthy passages as they do about sounding broo-tal. All these years in, I still can’t quite pinpoint what separates a death metal album that captures my attention like this from the rest of them, but I suspect its that magical “it” factor that makes me catch some of those same feelings I had when I was a teenager and all of this sounded new to me. I guess I’m asking for music that doesn’t sound nostalgic but makes me feel nostalgic? Is that a thing?
Ulthima – Symphony Of The Night:
Oh man I can’t emphasize how much I love this record, in all its late-90s Finnish melo-death referencing vibes via these melodies and decadent guitar leads. The title of this debut album isn’t a coincidence either, Ulthima admit to being Castlevania fans, and surely I’m correct in suspecting that they’re influenced by classic videogame scores ala Castlevania, even if its in drips and drops. That means that I wasn’t clonked over the head with melodies that reminded me of the actual soundtrack to that famed game, but some of the melodies that are present certainly wouldn’t sound out of place on said soundtrack either. If you have no idea what I’m talking about its fine because this is just a really fantastic melodeath album that recalls the genre’s more consistent, peak happiness creating era of yore. I just looked them up on Metallum and am not surprised to find they’re actually a Finnish based band (Finnish-Mexican to be exact), which makes sense given the serious Bodom and Norther vibes on some of these songs. And I love that album art… serious Andreas Marschall concept vibes there.
Silver Talon – Decadence and Decay:
Yet another band impressing with their debut record, Silver Talon was introduced to me on the last MSRcast episode (a good one, check it out!) and I’ve been enjoying this record ever since. It’s just that perfect blend of aggressive trad-metal with Virgin Steel vocal splashes mixed with some more extreme metal sonics ala thrash metal rhythmic attacks. I’ve been told that their 2018 EP Becoming A Demon was superior, and when I checked that release out on Metallum it became apparent that this band was basically formed out of the ashes of Spellcaster, and sure enough, I get major Spellcaster vibes on that EP so maybe that’s what people were responding to? And to be fair, their sound hasn’t changed that much on this new one, but that’s actually a good thing, and to my ears this album feels like a more realized vision of their sound. But lets not overly complicate things, this is a strong classic sounding trad-metal album that deserves checking out.
Vexillum – When Good Men Go To War:
Vexillum is one of those bands that I was introduced to awhile back but had kinda forgotten in the interim — namely their 2015 album Unum had a fantastic guest appearance on it by one Hansi Kursch, and where Hansi goes I go. I was impressed with that song and the rest of that album, which had two other strong guest appearance moments with Chris Bay and Mark Boals. Vexillum’s core sound reminds me a lot of Elvenking, only less pop-punk tinged in the vocals and with a far more weighty emphasis on a German power metal influence with riffs that emulate early Blind Guardian or Gamma Ray. I guess I’ll give myself a pass on forgetting about them since it has been six years since that record, but apparently worth the wait because I’ve come to love this album. It’s been that fittingly energetic and jaunty end of summer/prelude to fall soundtrack that has me thinking about the upcoming renaissance festival and cool winds and not sweating when walking outside. I was listening to this while ordering a certain fall-associated drink at the Starbucks drive-thru the other week and it was kinda stormy out with the wind blowing slightly “cool” for late August, and woo! What a feeling!
Duskmourn – Fallen Kings And Rusted Crowns:
There’s always one per year, that out of nowhere left hook of awesomeness that comes from the inky blackness to clock you across the jowl and leave you dazed and drooling. The long suffering George from our sister podcast Metal Geeks’ infamous segment “George Hates Metal” was responsible for this recommendation (which begs the question, does he really hate metal?), and this is the first recommendation from him that I will heartily back and endorse as a must listen. These guys are a duo from Jersey and Pennsylvania (…eh why not?), and this is their third independent album — the staggering quality of this record from start to finish prompting the question of “why aren’t these guys signed?”. It does occur to me though that perhaps they’re satisfied with being independent; because even though metal labels in the modern era aren’t known for putting in their two cents on creative decisions all too often nor applying pressure for a band to lean in a certain creative direction, being on a label does come with pressures all the same. Duskmourn have their Bandcamp and a pretty terrific merch selection on their Big Cartel band store. The first night we discussed them while recording the podcast, I was so impressed with their music and that spectacular logo that I was compelled to order a shirt then and there (it arrived and its awesome btw). Who needs a label?
Insomnium – The Antagonist:
Good grief this is a particularly gorgeous Insomnium song among a recent handful of new songs the band have slowly been releasing, all meant to be packaged together on the upcoming Argent Moon EP. It’s a little curious that they’ve essentially released the entire EP by this point over the past few months, because according to tracklistings I’ve seen, there’s only going to be one more as yet unreleased song on there, which makes the release itself a bit anticlimactic. But that’s a minor issue compared to what’s really on my mind…well, to be blunt, where the hell is Ville Friman? If you checked out their recent music videos, he’s nowhere to be found, and apparently, he wasn’t involved in this recording at all (already on Heart Like A Grave, his songwriting contributions were down to one track). Don’t get me wrong, I think Jani Liimatainen is a perfect fit for the band both as a songwriter/guitarist and a clean vocalist (as heard above), but Friman always struck me as one-half of the soul of the band alongside Niilo Sevanen. Anyway I did some digging, and stumbled on some answers to my question in this article focusing on Friman’s day job as a biology lecturer at a UK university. TLDR is that he contributed to songwriting and demos, but Covid restrictions meant he couldn’t contribute to the finished studio recordings (apparently?) nor be in their music videos. I’m relieved that he’s still part of the creative process in the band, because it was a little concerning with how much his contributions shrank last time around, but couldn’t they have had him record in the UK and just send the files over? Discuss this amongst yourselves.
Brainstorm – Turn Off The Light (EP):
So this is basically a pre-album EP release in the same vein of Insomnium’s The Antagonist EP that I talked about above, in that it collects all of the upcoming album’s pre-release singles into one tidy digital package (unless they’re releasing this in physical format mere weeks before the release of their album, which would make no sense). Insomnium of course do not have a new album on the horizon (at least, not to my knowledge), but Brainstorm’s Wall Of Skulls is expected September 17th. All four of these songs are going to be on there, but I’d still recommend giving this EP a listen to get as hyped up for the album proper as I am, because if these singles are any indication, we’re in for yet another satisfying album from Germany’s most reliable metal band. And the thing is, I thought their last record (2018’s Midnight Ghost) was pretty excellent, and I’m really feeling like these songs have been a continuation of the spirit they tapped into on that record. Meaty riffs, dramatic songwriting, and melodic hooks for ages — Andy B Franck can damn well deliver on a chorus. I broke out in a big grin when the chorus kicked in on “Glory Disappears” and bellowed a big expletive riddled bout of enthusiasm. Yet another moment when it’s probably better that I was alone in the car.
I didn’t plan on writing a one year pandemic anniversary piece, because honestly who the hell wants to remember the past year, let alone mark the anniversary of something that turned everyone’s lives inside out in various ways? But I guess the answer to that simple question is, well, we want to remember it, at least our subconscious minds do anyway. I was having a discussion with someone at the end of March about my feeling generally grumpy, anxious, and uninspired throughout the month, and they said they were suffering from the same thing, and added, “But you know… trauma anniversary and all.” I hadn’t heard the term before, but looked it up on Twitter later, and sure enough, there was a torrent of tweets written about our collective and personal trauma anniversaries and how if you were feeling bad for whatever reason, this might be a hidden in plain sight culprit. I thought it was social media created nonsense at first, but as the idea lingered in my mind, it started to dawn on me that my listening habits had already shifted to possibly hint at this being the case.
Some of you might remember that in early April of 2020, I created a Spotify playlist called The Anti-Anxiety Power Metal Playlist, and alongside my own picks, I solicited a ton of song suggestions from various power metal fans from the r/PowerMetal community and Twitter. I made it out of necessity for myself, and made it public to attempt to help anyone else out who needed shimmery, sugary, upbeat and inspiring power metal as much as I did to combat all the daily stress and anxiety we experienced in those early pandemic months. I don’t wanna bum anyone out by getting into details, but I was stressed about my job, money, and was one of the luckier ones in the end considering a ton of my friends and family members lost their jobs. Then there was the anxiety of just not seeing anyone or being able to hang out with friends. I suspect most of us made it through by binging content that was familiar and comforting, be it something like Parks and Rec, The Office, Good Mythical Morning or in my case videos of city walking tours filmed in the pre-pandy times. And so with music, I quickly found I didn’t want to listen to anything bleak or dark, I was getting enough of that from every second of the day thanks.
Enter the playlist. I can’t emphasize enough how much I relied on the music contained on this list. I’ll always remember going out for drives in April and May of 2020 around the rural country roads near me, blasting it full volume and glory clawing at perfect choruses and epic moments. It started to become a loud form of meditation, where I’d just lose myself in the music and focus on it so much I’d be mouthing along to any lyrics I knew (quite a bit as it turned out) and at times even singing along. No one was around to hear how bad that was anyway. Those were my brief escapes before I had to come back home and face reality, whilst keep myself busy doing anything but scouring social media for news updates like some self-flagellation aficionado. I could make it a few days, but then I’d start to feel antsy and claustrophobic and anxious yet again, and so into the car I went, for another therapy session. It was the only thing I wanted, nay, needed to hear. I actually grew up becoming a fan of extreme metal subgenres long before power metal was even called power metal, and many classic death, melodeath, and even black metal albums have been mainstays for me throughout my life when I was going through tough times. But something about the pandemic hit different, and I just knew that power metal in its most Euro-swag laden, pomp and glory drenched splendor was the only thing that would help then.
My favorite long-winded quote about power metal was written ages back by a reviewer named thedudeofdudeness on Metallum, who spoke of it’s “proclivity toward escapism, setting fantasy and science fiction themes against the backdrop of the real world and treating romanticism and imagination as a last refuge against the conflicts and alienation of modernity”. A mouthful yes but it’s sentiment was proven true in 2020 and even now a year on. I have such warm feelings towards the classic songs and albums that make up the genre, both old and new. And I feel tremendous gratitude towards the bands who make them, choosing to play a terminally uncool style of music that with rare exception, isn’t going to earn most of them a steady paycheck or even a full time income. I follow a lot of those musicians on Instagram, and it was surreal to see them dealing with the same personal anxieties and financial worries as I was during the lockdown (many of them still dealing with all of that in European countries), all while their music was helping to keep me from absolutely losing it over here.
I’m really proud that a lot of people still listen to the playlist a year later, it’s almost at 100 followers, and we’re over 300 songs and counting. I had eased off listening to it the past many months, due to trying to soak up as much new music as possible, but sure enough when March rolled around, I found myself dipping back into it often. I got to thinking about how there are certain songs on that playlist that just stand out among all the others as being particularly impactful on me, the flag bearers in other words for the playlist’s feel good powers. In no particular order at all (just like the playlist itself), I’ve collected some thoughts on my ten favorite of these songs below in an effort to highlight them a bit and maybe even help someone take a closer look at a band they’ve previously ignored.
Nocturnal Rites – “Still Alive”
One of the best songs in the Rites’ catalog, “Still Alive” has been a feel-good classic to me since I first heard it in 2005, and in my mind the entire Grand Illusion album it hails from was one of the last great records from that wave of really heavy, groove based power metal that around the turn of the millenium (thinking of stuff like Brainstorm, Tad Morose, etc). Jonny Lindqvist’s vocals always struck me as a little Mark Boals-ish with a little David Coverdale splash on certain phrasings, especially here, the end result being a hard rock edge to Euro-power swag. His vocals are a joy to behold here, spitting defiance and tinged with never say die spirit. The volume gets maxed out whenever this pops up on the playlist.
Masterplan – “Spirit Never Die”
This was the first song I added to the playlist upon creation, the only reason it’s not number one in the list is that I thought Hammerfall would make a better opener if someone wasn’t listening to it on shuffle. Look, everyone knows this song, and if you don’t, better late than never. It’s got Jorn on vox, it’s got Roland Grapow on guitars, and a hook that inspires Tony Kakko’s eyes closed musical ecstasy face you see on the playlist icon. The way Jorn vocalizes that “woaaaahhh” after the “leaving the future behind me!” line in the chorus is deserving of a full power stance, glory claw raised to the sky. How do you not feel better while listening to this gem?
Galneryus – “In The Cage”
I’m not going to pretend that this song’s lyrics (what I can decipher of them) make any kind of sense in relation to keeping one’s spirits up, in fact, it seems like Yama-B is referring to some kind of romantic heartbreak or something like it (eternal longing, you get the drift). It really doesn’t matter, because this song’s power is in Syu’s incredibly melodic leads and that unforgettable recurring melody that is just pure joy given musical form. Some people rag on Galneryus for their AOR tendencies as heard here, and those people can clear the hall. That influence works as an open canvass for Syu’s expressive playing, and Galneryus catalog is loaded with so many spectacular and generally underappreciated moments (it took me a long to discover these guys as well). I can’t emphasize enough just how much I love this song, it always cheers me up.
Stormwarrior – “Heading Northe”
The title track and flag bearer for Stormwarrior’s best album, “Heading Northe” in many ways exemplifies everything I love about metal in one perfect anthem of defiance, standing one’s ground, and the triumph over adversity. Equal parts speed metal tempos, power metal melodicism, and punk rock edge courtesy of Lars Ramcke’s gritty vocals, it’s one of the most satisfyingly glorious songs in metal history. Last year when I came back to work in a post-pandemic landscape, I’d often find myself jamming this on the way back home. There was something about feeling exhausted, blaring this at top volume, and careening down the freeway while shouting along to “And the north wind fills my heart again / Withe the flame that missed so long” while making grand hand gestures towards cars around you.
Freedom Call – “One Step Into Wonderland”
I think it’s only natural that metal’s most bouncily cheerful sounding band would have been a go-to during all of this, and there’s a number of Freedom Call songs that I could have singled out (so many that I had to limit how many I threw on the playlist just to maintain artist variety). But for me, “One Step Into Wonderland” resonated more than any other partly for Chris Bay’s surreal vision of a happy, care free “eden” conveyed in his admittedly over the top lyrics. The chorus here is magnificent, and the key moment is imbibing that line of “take away all sorrow and pain” like Bay is a some wise mystic and you’re his pupil trying to achieve transcendence and ride off into “wonderland” on the back of a giant cartoon bunny.
Lost Horizon – “Think Not Forever”
It’s kinda wild that the best Lost Horizon song (I said it!) would have the most pointedly appropriate lyrics of anything on this playlist. It’s always been a favorite of mine, and when I was building the playlist it was a no-brainer for it’s lyrics urging patience and determination, sentiments that everyone needed for a variety of reasons. This was on repeat, multiple times a day for the first couple weeks of everything last year, and continual rotation throughout the rest of the year. It’s just ultra distilled power metal essence bottled into six minutes that feels like three, with an unforgettable riff and an absolutely wild solo midway through. Also Heiman’s intro vocal scream is the kind of cathartic lunacy that can make a bad day bearable.
Visigoth – “Necropolis”
I’d always loved Manilla Road’s “Necropolis” and thought of it as a trad metal anthem despite the ridiculously zany Skeletor-esque vocals. When Visigoth covered it on their debut, it was remade into a beefier, more metallic sounding mold thanks to Jake Roger’s weighter, grittier delivery. Given the context of it’s lyrics, someone on the internet once sussed out the difference between both versions as The Wizard (Manilla Road) and The Warrior (Visigoth) teaming up to infiltrate the mystical necropolis. No matter the band though, I always thought of these lyrics as a metaphor for depression, despite all the specific fantasy imagery scattered throughout the third verse. The first four lines here are almost a mantra: “Through the jungle by the river Styx / I’ve journeyed long and far this day / Lurking shadows in the parapets / Will never make me turn away”.
Bloodbound – “Nosferatu”
This Urban Breed era Bloodbound classic has always been a favorite of mine, not only for it’s serious Maiden songwriting vibes, but for Breed’s untouchable vocals. Sure it doesn’t fit the vibe of the playlist, lacking the sugariness or upbeat positivity of most of the music on there, but I felt like the playlist needed some escapism too and this was one of the songs that immediately came to mind. It’s a vivid reminder that much of metal’s power to get us through the grind is to distract us from all the real world stuff we’re dealing with when the music stops. Also that escalating guitar melody is Tomas Olsson’s crowning achievement, a work of art worthy of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.
Galderia – “Shining Unity”
Galderia is a French power metal band that sounds like they should come from Germany for all their Gamma Ray/Freedom Call vibes, and sometimes I’ll hear bits of Japanese power metal’s neoclassical tendencies come through as well, as on the hyper-driven “Shining Unity”. This is one of those songs that always seems to come on when I’m driving on the freeway, hitting 60-70 mph, speeds at which it feels appropriate to listen to a song that’s built on a perfect balance of relentless speed and glorious technical precision. The group vocals here are so strong, emphatic, and empowering, that you can’t help but get a rush just listening to that chorus. I have no idea what inspired these lyrics, but the utopian pipe dream they envision of a united humankind “alive in harmony” is nice to live in for five minutes before returning to… you know, *gestures* all this.
Bruce Dickinson – “Tears Of The Dragon”
Years back I had started writing up a Bruce Dickinson solo career retrospective, because that aspect of his musical output has been nonexistent since 2005’s Tyranny Of Souls, and I never really had a chance otherwise to write about just how much I love his solo records. I never finished it of course, but I was reminded of that fandom whenever this aching gem would pop up in the playlist. Bruce wrote this song about the unexpected change in his life upon leaving Maiden and embarking on something new and unknown, and that’s kind of how things felt for a lot of us last year and even now. It’s all contained in that metaphor of throwing oneself in to the sea, letting the waves wash over him (us), only in this case it’s not an Edna Pontellier ending-it-all kind of thing, but more a surrendering to the currents of life vibe.
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.
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.
But 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.
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).
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…
What a year, its feels like its both taken forever to get through and yet passed in the blink of an eye. I was a bit concerned halfway through around the early summer when I realized that it was a little light on noteworthy releases. My worries were premature however, as 2017 was backloaded in a staggering way, causing myself to pick up the pace in the late summer and early fall just to keep up. The process of putting together my year end lists this time was a bit strange, because I felt that my nominees pool for the albums list was a little shorter than I’d expected, while the songs list was way more stacked than it normally is. I keep written nominee lists for songs and albums going throughout the year, both so I can throw my choices in whenever I’m feeling like I’ve come across a contender, and (primarily) so I don’t have to trawl through my own blog come December to see if I’ve missed anything. As usual, I relied on iTunes stats for play counts to keep myself honest, but this year instinct really led the way. The following songs on this list just stood out clearly among the other nominees and they are absolutely worth a few minutes of your time. Thanks for reading and keep an eye out for the best albums list coming soon, before year’s end is the goal!
The Metal Pigeon Best Songs of 2017:
1. “To Your Brethren In The Dark” – Satyricon (from the album Deep Calleth Upon Deep):
Not only is “To Your Brethren In The Dark” the emotional core of Satyricon’s controversial masterpiece Deep Calleth Upon Deep, its one of the defining songs of their career. Its almost slow-dance like tempo is hypnotic, its spiraling ascending and descending melodic phrasing eerie and suggestive, working to strengthen the captivating allure of this dirge. If the loose theme around Deep Calleth was about the spirituality found in appreciating art while set against the transience of life, this song could apply directly about our own most cherished art form (weighty stuff I know, but consider Satyr’s recent medical scares as its source material and that heaviness is appropriate). The phrase within the lyrics, “… pass the torch to your brethren in the dark…” is so relevant to everyone who loves metal, from the bands and labels to the writers at blogs and magazines to fans buying albums, going to shows, recommending stuff to other fans. There is no governing structure that supports metal music as a subculture or records its history for us, those tasks simply fall to us and its our responsibility to make sure that this music gets passed onto younger generations growing up today. I know this is a very metal blogger take on a song that is far more expansive in its lyrical reach, but its what I took from it. That’s also a testament to its power, as Satyr himself ascribed to it, “A song for the dark towers of the past and those who will rise in the future.”
2. “Apex” – Unleash The Archers (from the album Apex):
No song was more liable to get me a speeding ticket than the title track to Unleash The Archers awesome Apex, an album that not only represents the very best of what power metal has to offer, but has certainly opened up the genre to those who would normally scoff at it. This cut is a perfect example why, eight minutes that feel like three of a Maiden-gallop led charger that builds to the year’s most epic, satisfying chorus. This band is economical in the best sense, riffs are purposeful, built for conducting the crackling energy that underlies Brittney Hayes impassioned vocal melodies. Even the moody intro is a delight, with faintly chiming acoustic strumming underneath a lazily gorgeous open chord sequence, a moment of respite from the dramatic build up that follows and the rocket launch that happens immediately after. There’s real craft here, songwriting with an understanding of the trad/power metal bedrock that makes this kind of music spectacular, coupled with the wisdom of how to avoid the cliches and tropes that so often make it an easy target. In a recent tweet, Adrien Begrand (of Decibel fame) observed that the tastemaker best metal of 2017 lists were sorely lacking in metal that was actually, you know, fun —- I agree, and if said lists were missing out on Unleash the Archers, you can go ahead and ignore them now.
3. “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)” – Wintersun (from the album The Forest Seasons):
For all that I’ve written (controversially) about Wintersun that has aroused the ire of not only the band’s fans but Jari Mäenpää himself, I was eagerly anticipating The Forest Seasons, not to tear it down mind you, but because I genuinely think the guy is supremely talented. I loved the idea behind the concept, a metal re-imagining of Vivaldi’s FourSeasons, it was inventive and fun and made you wonder why no one (Malmsteen perhaps?) hadn’t tried it before. I’m not sure how well it succeeded in the minds of Wintersun fans as an album, I’ve seen a spectrum of opinions ranging every which way but for me I found that the autumn and winter cuts were lacking (ironic given the band’s name). The spring and summer movements however were fresh reminders of just why there’s so much hubbub surrounding this band in the first place. For my part, Mäenpää has never written something as starkly beautiful as the epic folk metal with a power metal engine of “The Forest That Weeps (Summer)”. There’s a spirituality heard in the dim orchestral keyboard arrangement that mournfully croons in the air above the noteworthy riff sequence going on in the verse sections. His clean vocal melody in the refrain is not only surprisingly hooky in a Vintersorg-ish way, but soulful even, the kind of thing old school folk metal was built on really. The moment that will send crowds of people headbanging in venues all over Europe is the coiled snake springing to strike in the full on riff assault that occurs at 7:19.
4. “Unbearable Sorrow” – Sorcerer (from the album The Crowning of the Fire King):
Sorcerer is one of those bands who quietly slipped under a lot of radars this year, and their late October opus The Crowning of the Fire King will get unjustly ignored, but hopefully not by you once you hear “Unbearable Sorrow”. This was one of those bands I didn’t actually write a review on but we did cover on the MSRcast, which was my introduction to them and the moment when I realized that this was where ex-Therion guitarist Kristian Niemann had wandered off to after he had left that band. Sorcerer actually began back in the late 80s, released a few demos, and split up in 1995 before ever doing a full length. Finally in 2010 its founding members bassist Johnny Hagel and vocalist Anders Engberg reunited and grabbed some of their Swedish pals to round out the lineup. Engberg is a sublime talent, and for you Therion diehards out there, he might look familiar if you remember the male vocalist onstage from the Wacken 2001 footage off the Celebrators of Becoming DVD box set (he was also on the 2001 live album Live In Midgard). This Therion connection is of course magnified with Niemann’s role as the lead guitarist here, as his distinctive neo-classical, richly melodic style is painted all across this album to stunning results. He was my favorite of the many guitarists that have graced Therion’s lineup, just wonderfully inventive in his writing and possessing a fluidity in his playing that I’ve rarely heard mirrored by anyone else. On “Unbearable Sorrow”, his guitarwork is mystical, other-worldly, darkly beautiful and damn near spiritual in its expressions, and he’s almost topped by Engberg’s powerful, melancholic vocal performance.
5. “The Same Asylum As Before” – Steven Wilson (from the album To The Bone):
While Steven Wilson’s newest album didn’t wow me as much as 2014’s absolute masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase., it did bear a handful of gems, the shiniest among them this slice of Lightbulb Sun era prog-rock. Wilson’s distinctive songwriting style makes it difficult not to look for comparisons to his previous work, despite this song being set amidst an album heavily influenced by 80s ‘intelligent pop’ icons Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Tears For Fears. For all the art-pop ambition of To The Bone, what I mostly got out of it was Wilson returning to the lighter moods and tones of that classic turn of the millennium Porcupine Tree era. I hear it in this song’s chorus, a dichotomy of bummed out lyrics sung by a resigned narrator against a splash of bright, warmly laid back acoustic guitar. The escalating guitar pattern that slices through this lazy summer day is crackling and electric, an unexpected piece of ear candy that has kept me coming back to this song even if I haven’t been tempted to revisit the entire album yet. Also worth commending here is Wilson’s vocal performance, because his delivery in the chorus is sublime, hitting the boyish tenor he’s been avoiding on the past few albums but has achieved so often earlier in his discography. Forlorn Porcupine Tree fans who’ve long fallen off the Wilson wagon should really be giving this track (and the album at that) a spin, because its the closest he’s come to his old band’s sound in almost a decade.
6. “Black Flag” – Iced Earth (from the album Incorruptible):
Iced Earth rebounded with this year’s Incorruptible, after the subtle disappointment that was 2014’s Plagues of Babylon, and the album yielded a pair of absolute classics in “Black Flag” and “Raven Wing”. One could make an argument for either being the best on the album, but I know that the former was simply one of my most listened to songs of the year just based off iTunes play count stats alone. The band recently released an actual music video for this too, just a week or two ago, six months after the album saw the light of the day. If you’ve seen it in all its Master and Commander glory, you’ll get why it took them six months to get it out to the public —- and look, I’m hard on conceptual music vids by metal bands, frequently citing that the budget never covers the ambition. That truth applies this time as well, which is why I linked to the song itself above (though in fairness, the “Black Flag” video is far from the worst I’ve seen this year, one could even call it relatively decent). But I’m getting distracted, because my larger point is that this song’s evocative, scene setting lyrics need no video at all, particularly when Stu Block sings “We live out our last days / With barrels of rum, black powder / And the clash of the blades”. How does that not put a music video of your own in your mind’s eye (or at least memories of playing Assassin’s Creed IV)?
7. “A World Divided” – Pyramaze (from the album Contingent):
Two years ago, I referred to then new Pyramaze vocalist Terje Haroy as one of the most promising new vocal talents in metal, and he certainly lived up to that hype on this year’s Contingent. It wasn’t a perfect album, in fact it was severely lopsided in that its first five cuts were home runs while the latter half of the album seemed lost and directionless. Amidst those first five songs however was the absolute gem “A World Divided”, a deceptively heavy song that lulls you in with a delicate, calming piano melody over much of its first minute, perhaps fooling you into thinking a power ballad was in the works. The great thing about guitarist Jacob Hansen’s production (yes that Jacob Hansen, he joined up after working as their producer/engineer on their last album and is pulling double duty) is that he keeps the keyboards high in the mix above the groove based riffs, and they’re an integral part of the musical fabric here. I know its a small thing, but there’s something delightful about how keyboardist Jonah Weingarten delivers a slowed down shadowing melody underneath underneath Haroy’s soaring vocal melody during the chorus. It speaks to the intelligence of the songwriting and the care put into crafting the soundscape that’s both hard hitting yet also fragile, delicate even. Oh and kudos to the band for actually delivering a high concept music video that was artfully done, and the band even looked great in it (which almost never happens)!
8. “Lvgvs” – Eluveitie (from the album Evocation II – Pantheon):
I loved this song and many, many others off Eluveitie’s first post Anna Murphy and company album, so much so that Evocation II – Pantheon is in the nominee pool for the upcoming albums of the year list. In a year where folk metal experienced something of a quiet artistic renaissance, Eluveitie released an album full of acoustic, European folk inspired music that was imbued with the very spiritual essence of what we loved about rootsy folk metal. It blew away its 2009 predecessor, but more importantly, it gave Eluveitie a bit of breathing room to stand apart from the more modern rock direction its former bandmates took with Cellar Darling. Their secret weapon in pulling this off turned out to be new vocalist Fabienne Erni, her voice light and breezy, providing a new tone in the band’s soundscape. On “Lvgvs”, her vocals are full of genuine warmth, almost reminiscent of Candice Night (of Blackmore’s Night fame), and her performance is surrounded by a stunning array of rustic instrumentation. This is technically not an original song, apparently being a traditional folk tune, but I’m not going to let that prevent me from putting it deservedly on this list —- Eluveitie make it their own here. This was on my playlist for the Texas Renaissance Festival, and it was the song I played when I woke up to the first really chilly winds of November sweeping through. Like the stick of frankincense I was burning that morning, “Lvgvs” was autumn’s musical incense.
9. “Journey To Forever” – Ayreon (from the album The Source):
If you tune into the upcoming MSRcast’s yearly recap episodes (we usually run a two-parter), you’re likely to hear loads about Ayreon’s The Source, the latest album from a band that is among my co-host Cary’s favorites. This album was really my first headlong plunge into Arjen Lucassen’s career defining project and while I certainly didn’t hate it, I didn’t share his extreme love for it for various reasons I outlined in my original review. One thing he and I will agree upon however is that “Journey to Forever” is one of the year’s best songs, bar none. Its got a pair of my all-time favorite vocalists in Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kursch and Edguy/Avantasia’s Tobias Sammet (joined by Michael Eriksen of Circus Maximus) —- and as impressive as that cast is, it wouldn’t be nearly as special if Lucassen hadn’t penned an incredible song. The chorus is spectacularly joyous, and it opens the song in acapella mode, followed by the beautiful plucking of a mandolin playing a variation on the chorus melody. After the guitars have kicked in, a gorgeous violin decides to swoon alongside everyone else, and at some point a hammond organ gets in on the fun too. Its the best three minutes on the album, in fact, its rather short length being the only serious criticism I can levy at it. If you heard the track and were reminded of his delightful work in The Gentle Storm project he did with Anneke van Giersbergen, you weren’t alone. More of this stuff please Arjen.
10. “Queen Of Hearts Reborn” – Xandria (from the album Theater of Dimensions):
One of the year’s grave disappointments was seeing the way Xandria split with vocalist Dianne van Giersbergen, a break-up that went public when she detailed the circumstances on a social media post. It didn’t paint the band in the best light, and to add to the condemnation were two ex-Xandria vocalists in Manuela Kraller and Lisa Middelhauve weighing in with similar testimony as to how the band treated its frontwomen. I got to see the band live with van Giersbergen a few years back while opening for the Sonata Arctica / Delain North American tour, and she was spectacular, easily one of the best live vocalists I had ever seen. I walked away from that show more impressed with her performance than anything else that night, and instantly decided to give Xandria another shot and began delving into their discography. Their 2017 release Theater of Dimensions is one of the best traditional symphonic metal albums in years, a throwback to a sound pioneered by Nightwish on classics like Wishmaster and Century Child. Its not quite revolutionary stuff then, but I enjoyed the hell out of it earlier this year, and “Queen of Hearts Reborn” was its supreme highlight, a powerful, towering showcase of dramatics and theatricality. I’ll admit, I soured on listening to the band after reading about the way they treated their vocalists, and I’m looking forward to what van Giersbergen will do with her original band Ex Libris. I wish I could’ve written instead about how Xandria’s future was bright, how this was their defining album —- and while artistically it might be, I pity whomever else they convince to work with them going forward.
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.