Scottish Author Mark Rice's Stream of Consciousness

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Top 20 Albums of 2018

1. Alrakis Echoes from Eta Carinae

Alrakis albums are a long time in the making but they’re worth the wait. To even sum them up as albums seems woefully inadequate. These are soundscapes of infinity, eternity, love, loss, longing, agony. Play Echoes from Eta Carinae on a quality hi-fi, crank up the volume, lie back, close your eyes and see where it takes you. It’s like being propelled into the vastness of space, through incandescent nebulae and aeons of black solitude.  This is more than music.  It’s sonic sorcery of the highest order.  Utterly beautiful.

Alrakis

 

2. The Skids – Burning Cities

When my favourite punk band (whom I first heard as a child of 8, via my big brother’s vinyl) regrouped and released their first new studio album in 36 years, there were only two possible results: disaster or glory. Thankfully, the latter proved true. Burning Cities is vibrant, alive, bouncy and bristling with feral energy. There’s no gradual build-up or slow burn. The opening track comes bursting out of the speakers, a bold declaration of intent: This Is Our World. Jobson sounds like he means every word. Life-affirming stuff.  I saw The Skids live four times in 2018, twice in their home town of Dunfermline, where these tracks were even more visceral, with Jobson punching the air and dancing around like the maddest of lunatics, yet never hitting a wrong note. Other standout tracks are Up on the Moors (originally about murderers Brady and Hindley, but altered on the advice of producer Youth, who advised Jobson to abandon that dark subject matter and make the track a celebration of life and wilderness instead), One Last ChanceWorld on Fire, and the album’s closer the slow, cowboyesque stripped-down anthem Desert Dust. As always, the lyrics are politically and socially aware. Bruce Watson’s guitar work is impeccable, as is his son Jamie’s. The rhythm section is stronger than ever, the seasoned professionals Mike and Bill making it sound easy. It’s fantastic to have them back.

The Skids

 

3. Jean-Michel Jarre – Equinoxe Infinity

Equinoxe Infinity is loaded with musical tips o’ the hat to the original Equinoxe.  Several of its sections would fit on Rendez-Vous without sounding out of place. Unlike certain other electronica artists (most notably Enigma), Jarre has the knack of being influenced by his previous work without ripping it off or copying chunks wholesale (Enigma has repeated the opening section of its astonishing debut album as a leitmotif in almost every successive release). This album sounds current and fresh, yet it’s very much connected to its 1970s roots. The production quality has to be heard on a serious system to be fully appreciated. When it comes to electronica, JMJ is as good as it gets.

JMJ - EI

 

4. Omnium Gatherum – The Burning Cold

Spearheading the vanguard of Finnish metal (along with Insomnium, Amorphis, Wintersun, Wolfheart, and Swallow the Sun), Omnium Gatherum continues to show the rest of the world how melodic death metal should be done. The most amazing aspect of this band is its ability to craft tunes that are dripping with melody yet heavy enough to crumble castle walls. They’re masterful musicians, tempering their brutality with spine-tingling atmospherics. This is the first OG album not to feature any epic-length tracks. By their standards these are short snappy tunes, all coming in at under 6 minutes. The musical formula is a familiar one to their fans – ferocious riffage, guttural vocals, blast-beat drums and some sublime lighter guitar moments. Eleven tracks and not a filler among them, with Markus Vanhala’s guitar work eye-wateringly good throughout.

Omnium-Gatherum-The-Burning-Cold

 

5. Wolfheart – Constellation of the Black Light

Another ace from Finland. This album blew my Mordaunt-Short speakers, which had soldiered valiantly through years of savage riffs and blast-beat drums, but couldn’t handle opening track Everlasting Fall at maximum volume. Subsequent listens happened on my trusty old Celestion Ditton 44 speakers (which can handle any music at any volume). Wolfheart’s second album Shadow World is one of the pinnacles of metal, so I can’t help comparing subsequent releases to it. Constellation of the Black Light sounds a fraction less inspired than Shadow World but it’s a small fraction. There’s nothing on here as cold and perfect as Veri or as iconic in the riffage department as Abyss, but this is a seriously impressive collection of songs nonetheless. The soundtrack to eternal winter.

Wolfheart

 

6. Zal Cleminson’s Sin’Dogs – Vol. 1

Every time I’ve seen Zal play live (with SAHB and also with Sin’Dogs) his performance has moved me. He has a superhuman ability on guitar. Not just an awe-inspiring heavy riffer, he is also a master of the tasteful refrain. This, the debut album from Sin’Dogs, is a perfect vehicle for those talents. The songwriting is of the highest calibre, with lyrics and attitude to match. Zal’s backing vocals were an important component of the SAHB sound. On Vol. 1 he proves that he’s also a powerful lead vocalist/frontman while once again reminding us exactly what he’s capable of with a guitar in his hands. His backing band is excellent. An amazing debut album. It’s good to have him back.

ZCSD - V1

 

7. Ghost – Prequelle

The next step in the evolution of Ghost. Papa Emeritus I, II and III have all been killed and offered as sacrifices to the dark spirits. Cardinal Copia is now fronting the band. It’s no surprise that he sounds exactly like the Papas Emeritus. I find it strange that so many folk categorise Ghost as black metal. There’s darkness in the lyrics, but the music is way too light to be classified as black metal. Prequelle is loaded with the usual Ghost melodies and harmonics (like Blue Öyster Cult with a hint of Mercyful Fate). Some of the music is extremely delicate but the lyrics are always hard-hitting. Choral backing vocals are present in force, adding melodrama and menace to proceedings.

Ghost

 

8. Greta Van Fleet – Anthem of the Peaceful Army

This debut album tapped into my psyche and felt familiar even on the first listen, as though the songs had been unearthed rather than created anew. It’s rare for music to make my jaw drop but the opening track Age of Man did.  Jaw actually dropped…way down low. Body hair pricked up in awe. It’s astonishing – a spring clean to the soul. On some tracks Greta Van Fleet couldn’t be more Led Zeppelin if they stuck lemons in their pants and squeezed them while preening, “Ooooh baby, call me Percy – I’m a Golden God.” At other times they sound a lot like Rush, right down to the nasal vocal delivery. They’ve clearly grown up on Led Zeppelin, Rush and Boston. Anthem of the Peaceful Army has that kind of timeless quality and mastery of melody. It’s anthemic, glorious, vast and loaded with energy. I love it.

GVF - AotPA

 

9. UDO – Steelfactory

Classic metal that sounds indistinguishable from the early material by Udo Dirkschneider’s previous band, Accept. His voice is as recognisable as ever, and as strong. Steelfactory doesn’t break new musical ground. It’s the same quintessential Teutonic metal that Herr Dirkschneider defined with Accept, and continues to deliver with his UDO band. When the formula’s this good, he’d be mad to change it. My only disappointment with Steelfactory is a lyrical one. On the track Hungry and Angry I initially thought he was singing, “Read my lips – throw your chips.” This struck me as one of the all-time greatest lines in metal. When I checked the lyric sheet I was horrified to discover that the official words are, “Read my lips – sunken ships.” Nowhere near as good. I’m going to keep singing “throw your chips” because it’s a better line and it definitely sounds like that’s what Udo’s singing, plus it makes more sense. You’re angry so you throw your chips, then you realise you’re not just angry but also hungry…because you threw away your chips. Perfect logic.

UDO - Steelfactory

 

10. The Night Flight Orchestra – Sometimes the World Ain’t Enough

The third studio album from Björn ‘Speed’ Strid’s side project (his main band being Swedish melodeath monsters Soilwork). Musically, the two outfits couldn’t be much further apart. TNFO delivers silky-smooth retro poppy proggy rock with electro layers and massive hooks. Catchy and beautifully produced. The band was originally conceived on a long US Soilwork tour, when Björn got fed up listening to generic rock tunes on the radio and so decided to start a band that would create the soundtrack to epic journeys. Job done.

TNFO - StWAE

 

11. Vreid – Lifehunger

This one took me by surprise. Not because I didn’t know what Vreid was capable of, but because the band had been quiet for so long that I’d almost given up on any new material from them seeing the light of day. Born out of the ashes of one of Norway’s most iconic metal bands (Windir, after the death of frontman Valfar), Vreid refreshes the parts most other music can’t reach. Windir, despite often being categorised as black metal, described their own music as Sognametal (‘dream metal’), a much more accurate term. Vreid continues that legacy, creating soundscapes that take the mind on mythic trips. Also like Windir, Vreid includes folk elements and sweeping instrumental interludes in their music. The result is glorious. Lifehunger was five years coming. Worth the wait.

Vreid - Lifehunger

 

12. Amorphis – Queen of Time

They’ve topped my album-of-the-year lists a few times, most notably with Silent Waters (which I consider one of the greatest albums ever). Queen of Time follows the same formula Amorphis has been using since Tomi Joutsen joined the band in 2006. Same style of songwriting, production, vocals, guitar tone, drum sound. There’s nothing wrong with that. They pioneered the sound and it’s impressive. The musicianship is amazing, as always. I’d have liked to hear them push the envelope as they did on Silent Waters, venturing into new musical ground and creating sounds that have never been heard before. I’m not complaining, though. A new Amorphis album is always welcome and Queen of Time is, like all the band’s material, pure quality.

A - QoT

 

13. Ihsahn – Ámr

I’m a huge fan of Ihsahn’s solo material, preferring it to the output of his former band (Norwegian black-metal pioneers Emperor). Ámr‘s predecessor, Arktis., is a colossal record – quintessential metal that takes its influence more from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal than from black metal. For the most part Ámr is a worthy successor, but in places it’s annoying. Ihsahn’s ventures into experimental sound and avant-garde noise sometimes add to the music, but just as often they detract from it. Case in point: the use of brass instruments on sections of this album. Brass instruments have no place in metal. That’s not me being closed-minded. It’s just fact. Never in the history of metal has some guy parping on a trumpet enhanced a song. Many times it has ruined an otherwise excellent track. Most of Ámr is amazing. Minus the parpy nonsense, it would have been a true classic.

Ihsahn-820x820

 

14. A Perfect Circle Eat the Elephant

A Perfect Circle seemed like a long-abandoned project, so Eat the Elephant was a welcome surprise. It’s a cracking comeback album, as arty and mathematical as you’d expect from Maynard James Keenan. The production quality is something special, so the album benefits from being listened to on a serious hi-fi system at a decent (loud) volume.

APC - EtE

 

15. Ivar Bjørnson & Einar Selvik – Hugsjá

After the monumental success of these two Norse stalwarts’ first full-length collaboration, Skuggsjá (a commissioned concert piece for the 200th anniversary of the Norwegian Constitution, later recorded/released as an album), a follow-up was almost inevitable. Better known as members of Enslaved and Gorgoroth/Wardruna respectively, Bjørnson and Selvik have a symbiotic relationship when they join forces. Hugsjá is, like its predecessor, a journey into the past, with the bulk of the music performed on traditional ancient instruments from Scandinavia. Hypnotic rhythms that touch the soul.

IB & ES - H

 

16. Sigh – Heir to Despair

Japan’s first black-metal band of renown, still sticking to their guns and producing music that’s uncompromising, ground-breaking, and equal parts beautiful/unnerving. Heir to Despair is, I reckon, their greatest studio album to date.

Sigh-–-Heir-to-Despair-Indy-Metal-Vault

 

17.  Folket Bortafor Nordavinden – Sagnamadr

Although this outfit has been playing live for over two decades, this is the first recorded release. With that much practice under their belts, you’d expect them to sound polished and professional…and you’d be right. This is roots music that can be summed up using the words of The Shamen’s Mr C: shamanic and artistic archaic revival – activate the rhythm that has always been within. If that sounds like your cup o’ tea, give this a whirl.

FBN - S

 

18. Judas Priest – Firepower

Is this a classic Priest album? No. Does it contain some quintessential Priest moments? Yes. Never the Heroes, for example, features a barnstorming riff, an impeccable groove and an impassioned vocal from Halford. If the whole album sounded that inspired, it’d be way closer to the top of my list. There’s nothing bad on the record, but much of it sounds like Priest by numbers – musically faultless but lacking oomph.

JP - F

 

19. Venom – Storm the Gates

Venom coined the term Black Metal on their album of the same name in 1982. In doing so they gave birth to a movement. They had already forged a sound of their own – a mixture of punk anger, metal heaviness, insane speed, lo-fi production and an anti-Christian ethic that would strike a chord in Norway over a decade later, bringing about the Second Wave of Black Metal, which spawned havoc in the form of church-burnings, infighting and murder. Venom still features original frontman Cronos, but his previous partners-in-crime Mantas and Abaddon have left the fold (they now have a band called Venom Inc. – an excellent outfit in its own right). Cronos’s 2018 Venom sounds less black metal and more traditional heavy-duty bastard metal. His vocals are more intelligible than in days of yore, the production is immeasurably better and the songs have more melody. The song titles/lyrical themes/album covers haven’t changed much. They’re still as blasphemous and subversive as ever.

V - StG

 

20. Saxon – Thunderbolt

A workmanlike album by Saxon standards but with enough high points to merit repeated listens. I doubt any of the tracks will remain in the band’s setlist after the Thunderbolt tour. With musical execution, vocal delivery and production values of this calibre, however, the album is enjoyable if uninspired.

S - T

 

That’s it – my top albums of 2018. There’s one more release I want to mention before I fook off to make a pot of tea. It’s the untitled swansong disc by my friends Thunderfuck and The Deadly Romantics – a barnstorming collection of revamped classics, new songs, cover versions and live material. There’s only one reason it’s not listed in my top 20: it’s not commercially available. The band created a small amount of them (double figures) as a thank-you to their closest friends and supporters who’ve stood by them (and occasionally on them) over the years. I’m grateful to be among that number. I hear that they might be allowed out of Canada next year to play some gigs in the UK. If that happens I’ll be along for the ride, offering moral support and verbal abuse.

What’s going to be top of my 2019 list, you wonder? I know but I’m not telling yet. You’ll just have to wait. Speaking of waiting, isn’t there a sequel I’m meant to be finishing? I better get back to that. It’s coming…

My Albums of 2017

While working on a blog post about my top 20 albums of 2018, I realised to my horror that I hadn’t published my previous blog post detailing my top 20 albums of 2017. So, not before time, here it is. Better late than never. My top 20 of 2018 will follow soon.

 

1. Nimbatus – The Invisible Lake

This isn’t the first Nimbatus album to top one of my album-of-the-year lists. The Invisible Lake is in the same vein as previous releases: instrumental metal with complex song structures, gorgeous guitar tone, superbly crafted melodies and emotion in spades. The production quality is astonishing, with each instrument distinguishable in perfect clarity. As with past Nimbatus material, the entire project is the work of one man.  Heavy-metal genius.

Favourite track: Afterglow – aspiring metal guitarists should listen to the solo many times, then file under ‘How It’s Done’.

Nimbatus

 

2. Ghost Bath – Starmourner

They’re still not Chinese. Ghost Bath’s Moonlover was my equal-top album of 2015. Its successor, Starmourner, is even better. The style hasn’t changed. It’s still sublime guitar melodies underpinned by artillery drumming and vocals that sound like wailed laments of the damned. What gives this such emotional impact is the counterpoint between tuneful melodies and feral vocals. Starmourner is a work of supreme confidence musically, lyrically and thematically. There isn’t a weak moment, and the highs are transcendent.

Favourite track: Celestial.

GB

 

3. Wolfheart – Tyhjyys

Epic soundscapes from the frozen north. Wolfheart’s Shadow World was an epiphany in 2015, with the band realising the potential shown on its debut, Winterborn. This third Wolfheart release secures their place among Finland’s melodic-death-metal icons alongside Amorphis, Swallow the Sun, Wintersun, Omnium Gatherum, and Insomnium. It’s rich in atmospherics, with doomy leanings, keyboards and string-section arrangements more prevalent than on previous releases. A dark, heavy and hauntingly beautiful slice of ice-cold melodeath.

Favourite track: Boneyard.

W

 

4. Kreator – Gods of Violence

You know what you’re getting with Kreator: the best thrash band ever, bar none. Mille Petrozza and his cohorts are always on form. Accomplished songwriters, they deliver their unique brand of sound with stunning intensity. Gods of Violence is another slab of molten metal from the German masters. It had a lot to live up to, following 2012’s Phantom Antichrist (not only my favourite Kreator album, but one of my favourite albums, period). GoV is more straight-ahead, uncompromising thrash than Phantom Antichrist, which was experimental in tempo, melody and song structure. This is a return to pure thrash roots, and a powerful one at that. It doesn’t top Phantom Antichrist but it’s still a spring-clean to the soul, refreshing parts other thrash bands can’t quite reach.

Favourite track: for a while it was Army of Storms (which sounds much like the Phantom Antichrist material), but after repeated listens it’d have to be the title track, Gods of Violence, for the sheer intensity of its delivery.

K

 

5. Cloven Hoof – Who Mourns for the Morning Star?

Born as part of the NWoBHM movement in the late ’70s, Cloven Hoof emerged from Wolverhampton, just along the road from the birthplace of metal (Birmingham, England: home of Black Sabbath and Judas Priest). This connection has never been more evident than on Who Mourns for the Morning Star? It sounds a lot like Judas Priest circa Painkiller. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when the songwriting is of this calibre. There’s no pretentiousness here – just no-nonsense metal. I rate Cloven Hoof’s material all the way back to their mysterious early demos. This is their finest release yet.

Favourite track: Song of Orpheus.

CH

 

6. Fen – Winter

Their mission statement says, “…inspired by the windswept, desolate landscape of England’s Fen region, the band set out to fuse the cold rage of Black Metal with more reflective influences, creating a deeply intense and atmospheric sound which speaks of loss and melancholic yearning.” Couldn’t have put it better myself. Job done.

Favourite track: Winter II (Penance).

 

7. Ereb Altor – Ulvfen

Atmospheric black metal that owes a debt to the legendary Bathory. I’m a recent convert to the Ereb Altor cause, having been made aware of them by a friend in Germany who reckoned they’d be just my cup o’ tea. He was right. Ulfven is as Viking as shield maidens and dragon-headed longboats. Glorious.

Favourite track: En Synd Svart Som Sot.

EA

 

8. Anathema – The Optimist

Few bands have undergone such radical musical transformations as Anathema. I remember listening to the I Am the Bloody Earth EP when it came out in the ’90s and realising there was something special about this band. Back then they were playing doom metal in the British vein of the time (My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost), but as the musicians in Anathema grew up their music grew up too. It matured and widened its horizons, leaving behind all notions of genre or scene. For over a decade now the band’s new releases have been called prog rock, but that doesn’t tell the full story. There are prog elements but the overall sound is too big, too expansive and too rich for the prog term to do it justice. The turning point for Anathema, that moment when they left metal behind and transcended into a new realm, was We’re Here Because We’re Here in 2010. That album was a milestone in their musical evolution. It’s no exaggeration to say that each release since then has been another masterpiece in its own right. On this album female vocals have largely taken over from male ones. Piano is there in force too. And like all Anathema albums, The Optimist is dripping with emotion.

Favourite track: The Optimist.

A

 

9. Sólstafir – Berdreyminn

Icelandic metal that sounds like a heavied-up version of Danish legends D.A.D. in all but the vocals. Sólstafir has that same metal ‘n’ roll cowboy sound, but the lyrical themes are more profound and the vocal delivery more intense. This works beautifully. I liked their earlier albums but I love this one. The tone of the guitars is sublime – at times Chris Isaakesque – while the bottom-heavy bass gives the soundscapes serious depth.

Favourite track: Silfur-Refur.

S

 

10. Myrkur – Mareridt

Amelie Bruun’s black-metal-meets-Clannad-at-the-edge-of-a-misty-lake-in-the-forest-at-night project Myrkur piqued my interest with their demo a few years ago. This, the band’s second full-length album, continues in much the same musical vein. It’s heavily influenced by Wardruna (a good thing) and less obviously by Bathory (also a good thing). There’s atmosphere in spades, with Bruun’s voice haunting throughout.

Favourite track: Crown.

 

11. Vintersorg – Till Fjälls del II

Till Fjälls is one of my all-time favourite albums and one of the most influential Viking metal albums ever recorded. It’s perfect in every detail. Even the title, Till Fjälls – To the Mountains – fits the music perfectly. I always worry when a sequel to such an album is planned. One can’t improve upon perfection, and more often than not an immaculate legacy is somewhat tainted in the attempt. Examples – Queensrӱche’s Operation: Mindcrime, where Part II wasn’t fit to shine the shoes of the original, and Helloween’s The Keeper of the Seven Keys, where the sequel was quite tasty but lacked the inspiration and beautiful darkness of the first. Some legacies should be left alone. Till Fjälls del II – like Queensrӱche’s Operation: Mindcrime II – came several albums and a couple of decades after the first incarnation. That’s as far as the comparison goes, though.  TFdII‘s songs are loaded with cold northern atmosphere and the track titles/lyrics are as deep and dark as one would expect from these uncompromising Swedes (thank feck for Google translate), yet there are no tracks here that resonate in my soul quite the way Till Fjälls does. A barnstormer of an album nonetheless.

Favourite track: Lavin (which translates as avalanche) – a masterclass in atmospherics. Its delicate intro lulls listeners into relaxation before pummelling them with relentless riffage. The effect is like being hit in the face by a mountain…and enjoying it.

 

12. Peter Bjärgö – Animus Retinentia

He’s been involved in many musical projects across a diverse array of styles, from extreme metal to dark ambient soundscapes. Originally Peter Pettersson, he changed his surname upon marrying Cecilia Bjärgö in 2003. Who said romance was dead? Anyway, to the music. This, Peter’s fourth solo album, is a moving piece of work. The music has an otherworldly dreamlike quality and more than a hint of the minimalism that makes Ludovico Einaudi such a genius. It could be the soundtrack to one of those dreams in which everything’s eerily beautiful yet there’s an ominous atmosphere. This music touches the soul. Haunting, beautiful, captivating, immersive.

Favourite track: You Let the Light Shine Through.

PB

 

13. Thor – Beyond the Pain Barrier

Jon Mikl Thor has been one of my favourite fixtures in the heavy-metal pantheon since I heard Let the Blood Run Red as a kid, after which I ran straight out and bought the 12″ single in blood-red vinyl. That was a good time to discover the Canadian-born Viking Thor, for he was like a real-life cartoon character – metal’s own living He-Man doll. Unlike fellow real-life metal cartoon characters KISS and Manowar, Thor didn’t need makeup, shoulder pads or huge lighting displays to make an impact. He didn’t even need clothes. Having competed in bodybuilding and won many titles, he just added instruments to his posing routine, wandered onstage in his skimpy posing pouch sporting a comic-book-hero physique, then proceeded to dish out well-crafted metal with big hooks and catchy choruses. Instead of a drum solo at his gigs, he would blow into a hot-water bottle until it expanded like a balloon and exploded. That takes serious lung power. But what of Thor in the present day? Well, he’s been through some rough times. He was advised by his doctor to cancel a world tour. The doctor thought Thor’s heart might pack in under that kind of stress (Thor was on heavy medication – the only kind he would ever take). But being metal’s own living He-Man doll, he ignored that advice and set out on the tour, recording footage across the world and releasing it as a documentary. As I sat in my living room watching that film, which was both heartbreaking and life-affirming, I was surprised to hear a voice I know well. Sure enough there was my Greek friend Dimitrios (who translated my novel Metallic Dreams into Greek – a version that will soon be released) backstage with Thor in some remote part of eastern Europe, plastered drunk and shouting like a lunatic. I sent Dimitrios a message saying I’d just seen him in the Thor documentary. He replied, “Where was I?” I answered, “Croatia or Albania or the Czech Republic or somewhere around there. You were blazing drunk.” Dimitrios said, “I don’t even remember that. I was really drunk for a couple of weeks around that time.” That may sound surreal but it’s just another day in the life of my Greek friend, who thinks nothing of flying to the other side of the world to sign a metal act to his label, or just to see a favourite artist playing live. Anyway, back to this latest Thor release. He’s still doing what he does best – crafting anthemic metal in the classic style and delivering it with his trademark machismo. Archetypal stuff. He’s one of the wonders of the world.

Favourite track: Galactic Sun – a glorious mix of Skids’ punk attitude, Saigon Kick’s psychedelic harmonies and AC/DC’s riffage blended with the usual Thor blueprint (Judas Priest meets Manowar meets Black Sabbath in Asgard).

T

 

14. Shade Empire – Poetry of the Ill-Minded

Another impressive outfit from metal’s main breeding ground, Finland. The band is usually categorised as melodic death metal, but Shade Empire is also heavily influenced by the Gothenburg sound popularised by In Flames, Soilwork, and At the Gates.

Favourite track: Anti-Life Saviour – the album’s standout track, an epic with sweeping twists and turns, impressive atmospherics and a sublime melodic interlude à la Queensrӱche.

SE

 

15. Bell Witch – Mirror Reaper

Mirror Reaper deserves to be in the year’s top 10 for its cover art alone. That didn’t bias my opinion of the music, though. The artwork is a welcome bonus in an era when most bands put little effort into covers (a trend that began when CDs emerged). I miss the days when vinyl reigned supreme, because back then most heavy bands, especially those in the metal and prog-rock genres, deemed cover art as important as the music it accompanied. The art was an integral part of the image. This third Bell Witch release is a natural evolution of their epic and eerie doom-metal sound. Mirror Reaper is a double album, yet it contains only one track split into two parts. An ambitious endeavour that works due to the nature of the music, which changes mood and texture as it progresses, forming vast soundscapes that take the listener on a hypnotic journey into Bell Witch’s deep, dark world. Appropriately, the track Mirror Reaper‘s two sections are titled As Above and So Below. Crushingly heavy passages co-exist side by side with delicate, mournful guitar refrains, huge drum sounds and occasional vocals – sometimes choral-style laments, other times low doomy growls. No detail sounds out of place. This isn’t the result of two numbskulls churning out random noise and hoping for the best. It’s the sound of two true artistes weaving sonic tapestries that are magnetically attractive to anyone with metal in their soul.

Favourite track: I’ll give you one guess.

BW

 

16. Paradise Lost – Medusa

One of the most consistently impressive bands on the planet (they’ve topped my album-of-the-year lists twice), Paradise Lost has a relentless work ethic. Like only a few other outfits (most notably the much-missed Type O Negative), PL has a knack for crafting metal that’s stunningly heavy and ultra melodic. Not an easy thing to do, yet they make it sound easy. Medusa is the heaviest album the band has released in over a decade. Its predecessor The Plague Within revisited the heaviness of the band’s doomy roots at points. Medusa is heavier still, yet it retains the melodic sensibilities of their lighter albums such as Symbol of Life.

Favourite track: Blood & Chaos.

M

 

17. Arch Enemy – Will to Power

I feared that the departure of Angela Gossow as Arch Enemy vocalist might spell downfall for the band. I needn’t have worried. Alissa White-Gluz has filled Angela’s slot perfectly (I’m speaking figuratively, ya perverts – get your minds out of the gutter…and the gusset). This, the second post-Gossow Arch Enemy studio album, sees the band on fine form, although following a more generic, less brutal path than on their previous recording, War Eternal. Michael Amott’s guitar work is astonishing, as always. His riffage drives things along, veering off into jaw-dropping fretboard flourishes at regular points along the way.

Favourite track: My Shadow and I – strongest track on the album by a country mile…melodeath done right.

 

18. Samael – Hegemony

Thirty years into Samael’s career the Swiss legends are as strong as ever, their sound instantly recognisable. They are pioneers, not followers. Often classified as industrial metal or black metal or a combination of the two, there’s more to the band than that. For starters, there are symphonic elements – not overblown theatrical symphonics, but tasteful accompaniment that enhances the songs. Secondly, the sound is anything but lo-fi. The sonic quality is spectacular. Having studied ‘Sport as a Tool of Hegemonic Control’ as part of my undergraduate degree, I understand that the album’s subject matter is a reality rather than some flight of fancy brought about by exposure to conspiracy theories. Vorph’s vocals are fantastic throughout. His familiar deep guttural growl has influenced so many fellow Swiss bands – Swamp Terrorists and Eluveitie, most obviously – as well as others across the globe. As I said, pioneers.

Favourite track: Hegemony – quintessential Samael.

 

19. Steve Hackett – The Night Siren

Like all Hackett releases, this is a quality slice of music loaded with tasteful guitar work and distinctive vocals. Of all the ex-Genesis members, Hackett has been the most exploratory in terms of musical styles. He is also a relentless workaholic, recording and touring year upon year, decade after decade. As a result, he is always match fit. The Night Siren is evidence of this. Steve flits between musical styles with ease, from neo-classical flourishes to baroque ‘n’ roll rhythms and heavier interludes, all underpinned by finely tuned proggy sensibilities.

Favourite track: The Gift – one of the most poignant instrumentals I’ve ever heard. Beautiful tone, beautiful execution…just beautiful.

 

20. Accept – The Rise of Chaos

Accept has always been close to my heart, ever since I heard Princess of the Dawn as a 10-year-old and stood in open-mouthed awe as shivers ran down my spine. The combination of skilled songwriting, excellent execution and a touch of exoticism made for an utterly addictive whole. That Accept line-up – Udo Dirkschneider, Wolf Hoffman, Peter Baltes and Stefan Kaufmann – remains my favourite of the band’s incarnations. Wolf and Peter are still present, which allows the band to retain its archetypal sound. Mark Tornillo has been doing a pristine job on vocals for a few years. It can’t be easy replacing a vocalist who at times sounded like he was shouting abuse while at the same time trying with all his might to squeeze out a particularly stubborn shit, but Tornillo has done so with aplomb. The Rise of Chaos doesn’t break new ground. It’s Accept doing what Accept does best – anthems with huge hooks, singalong choruses and riffage that could strip wallpaper.

Favourite track: Koolaid.

Accept

 

 

 

The Albums of 2015

Music gained much in 2015, but there was also monumental loss. Motörhead founder Lemmy died just weeks after his pal Phil ‘Philthy Animal’ Taylor, drummer on classic ‘head albums. A world without Lem and Phil is a strange place. Lemmy was more than just the godfather of heavy metal. He was integrity personified. An original. A one-off. Whether singing or speaking, his gruff voice was instantly recognisable as the sound of gravel-throated truth. I was lucky enough to meet Lem and experience his wisdom, humour and warmth. Some people walk into a room without making a noticeable change to its energy. Not Lemmy. He had presence. One didn’t have to see or hear him to be aware of that presence. It could be felt when he was near. I know. I felt it.

Rewind eleven years. My journalist friend Mike and I are backstage at Glasgow Barrowlands after a barnstorming Motörhead show. Smiling drummer/vortex of wild energy Mikkey Dee greets us with handshakes and bear hugs. Guitarist Phil Campbell is reclined on a sofa, immersed in his thoughts. Behind him, stuck to a wall, a piece of A4 paper features the scrawled words ALL CIDER BELONGS TO PHIL CAMPBELL. A bulbous glass container like a crystal cauldron has been filled with miniature Cadbury’s confectionery. Lingerie-clad women relax with drinks. Lem is nowhere to be seen. The ebullient Dutchman Mikkey invites Mike and me to help ourselves to whatever we want. “Everything is fair game,” he tells us, gesticulating wildly around the room, “except the cider. Best not to touch the cider.” Glancing over at Phil Campbell, Mikkey explains, “Phil can be…volatile…if anyone else drinks the cider.” In addition to Phil’s supply of alcoholic apple juice, there are gallons of vodka, whisky and lager. I’m driving, so no booze for me. Here in Glasgow, city of my birth – in Barrowlands Ballroom, where my maternal grandmother and grandfather used to dance on Saturday nights before World War 2 – I find myself in a surreal scene backstage with Motörhead and entourage, drinking Evian water and eating ‘fun-size’ Dairy Milks, Fudges and Twirls while the ever-smiling Mikkey Dee regales Mike and me with stories. I’m enjoying the conversation with Mikkey, whose powerhouse drumming I’ve enjoyed since way back in his days with King Diamond, but I can’t help wondering where Lem is. Then I sense something behind me. I feel it. The energy in the room has changed and I know he is there. I turn round and that face is looking back at me. Lemmy has arrived. He looks every bit as iconic in the flesh as he does on record covers and the pages of music magazines. Words tumble out of my mouth. “Hello, Sir. That was a phenomenal gig tonight. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” growls Lem. “We do our best.” He extends his right hand for a shake. As I grasp it we look each other in the eyes. I sense that I’m being weighed up. This continues for a couple of seconds, then Lem smiles. Over the rest of the night we chat about life on and off the road. Mike – who is reviewing the gig for a national newspaper – hasn’t arranged an interview, but that doesn’t stop him from going into journalist mode. This is a chance for him to dig dirt on other musicians – exclusive insider information, straight from the Motörhorse’s mouth. Lem is no mudslinger, though. He has nothing bad to say about any of his peers. So Mike gravitates towards his drum hero Mikkey, to see if he has any juicy gossip to share. Over by the Cadbury’s confectionery cauldron, Mikey and Mikkey laugh and joke like the pair of nutters they are, pulling preposterous poses for photos. I stay with Lemmy. When I ask about the early Motörhead tours with Saxon, his face lights up. He speaks of Graham Oliver and Biff Byford with huge affection. I mention that a few weeks ago Blackmore’s Night cancelled their Edinburgh gig an hour before it was meant to start. Venue staff turned away ticketholders, claiming that Candice Night had last-minute concerns about her throat. This left Mike, me and thousands of other concertgoers (many of whom had turned up in medieval garb) disappointed and out of pocket. As a comparison, I recount events at a recent Saxon show in Glasgow, where after the gig Biff apologised for his voice, explaining that he was loaded with the flu. This apology surprised the audience, as Biff’s vocal delivery had been perfect.

“Most singers are delicate creatures,” says Lem, “but not Biff. He’s a big strong brute who’ll go onstage even when he’s so sick that anyone else in his position would cancel the show. He’s a professional. And he never has an off-night.”

I tell Lem that I started listening to Motörhead when I was little more than a toddler, growing up on their music as well as being heavily influenced by their image and attitude. “Raised on Motörhead,” he muses. “What a horrible thought. That must make me your bastard godfather.”

“Aye,” I agree, liking the idea, “Ah suppose it does.” Lem smiles. I smile back. In that moment all is right with the Universe.

I tell Lem the story of when, at age ten, I approached my mother and asked her to buy me a denim jacket so I could rip off its arms then cover its body in studs and band patches, only for her to reply, “Forget it. You’d look like one o’ those degenerates in Motörhead. You can have a nice bodywarmer instead.”

Lem roars with laughter. When he recovers enough to talk he says, “She sounds like a good woman, your mum. You wouldn’t wanna look like those degenerates in Motörhead!”

That night was one of warmth, friendship, camaraderie, stories, laughter and a palpable sense of heavy-metal family. Mikkey and Lem were a joy to be around. Afterwards Mike described them as thoroughly lovely chaps. Perhaps those aren’t the words you’d expect associated with the mighty Motörhead, purveyors of thunderous sounds laden with wartime imagery. But Mike’s words were bang on.

Not all Lem’s trips to Glasgow went as smoothly as that one. A few years earlier he and Fast Eddie Clarke, then-guitarist of Motörhead, arrived at Radio Clyde for an interview the station had requested. An hour after the interview was due to start, Lem and Ed were still waiting in the foyer. No one had offered them an explanation for the delay. This annoyed them, as they were generous with their time but didn’t appreciate it being wasted. Lemmy grumbled to Ed that the DJ must think his time more important than theirs. Spotting a retractable fire hose in a wall cavity, Fast Eddie nodded towards it and said, “Let’s do ‘im!” Ed unrolled the fire hose, pointed its nozzle into the offending DJ’s booth, switched it on, then he and Lemmy calmly walked out of the building. Had that DJ been professional enough to be on time, or else explained that he was running late rather than leaving Lem and Ed sitting stranded in a radio station for an hour, he could have avoided having his office turned into a swimming pool. As Lem often said, manners cost nothing.

Lem, you were one of the good guys, walking life as you talked it, unflinching in your honesty. I learned a lot from you. Integrity is in short supply but you had it in spades. You had all the good stuff in spades, my beautiful bastard godfather. You were, are and always will be the Ace in the pack.

Lem and me backstage at Glasgow Barrowlands

Lem and me

 

Now to my albums of 2015.

1= Moonspell – Extinct

A masterpiece of Gothic metal from Portugal’s finest export. Their musical influences are obvious: The Sisters of Mercy, Depeche Mode, Type O Negative, The Cult, Front 242, Front Line Assembly. There’s also a healthy dose of originality and a willingness to experiment. String sections and eastern melodies provide a counterpoint to eviscerating riffs. The light/shade duality is present throughout, with Fernando Ribeiro’s vocals alternating between a deep baritone croon (à la Dave Gahan) and a roar that would make most death-metal vocalists soil their pants and go running to their mothers. Back in the ‘90s Ribeiro was one of the first to alternate between clean vocals on a verse and a growled chorus (or vice versa), a technique that many bands have since adopted (Fear Factory’s Burton C. Bell does it beautifully, while in Finnish melodic-death metal it has become the norm, with Insomnium, Amorphis, Omnium Gatherum and others using the technique to great effect). Lyrically, musically and atmospherically, Extinct is perfect. A gesamtkunstwerk.

Favourite track: Breathe (Until We Are No More).

Moonspell - Extinct

1= Wolfheart – Shadow World

When Tuomas Saukkonen announced in 2013 that he was disbanding his five musical projects Black Sun Aeon, Before the Dawn, The Final Harvest, RoutaSielu, and Dawn of Solace, in order to focus on one new project – Wolfheart – I was concerned. Losing five excellent Finnish bands and gaining one unproven one didn’t seem like a good deal. I kept an open mind and hoped that Tuomas would manage to distil the strengths of his five previous bands into Wolfheart. The 2013 debut Winterborn didn’t quite achieve this but Shadow World is a different prospect altogether. It is magnificent, epic, spellbinding. Turning it up loud is like letting a storm into your body. And holy fuck, does that feel good.

Favourite track: Abyss – only in the icy north could this be born.

Wolfheart

1= Tengger Cavalry – Blood Sacrifice Shaman

Mongolian Folk Metaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal! When a band dedicates an album to wolf, eagle, horse, Genghis Khan and the blue sky Tengger, you know they’re not fannying about. This was my biggest musical surprise of 2015. It became my most played album during the first half of the year. Mesmerising Mongolian throat singing accompanies savage riffs, blast-beat drums and nomadic folk melodies on traditional instruments. These components aren’t flung together in a haphazard fashion. They’re expertly arranged to create passages of delicacy then brutality, sorrow then rage. Astounding.

Favourite track: Tengger Cavalry.

Tengger Cavalry

1= Ghost – Meliora

My most listened-to album of 2015. The CD went into my car stereo and remained there for months. On long drives I played it on repeat, never tiring of its sublime harmonies. Shilo the wolfboy loves it too. Ghost’s music puts him into a blissed-out reverie (which is appropriate, as several times we’ve met folk who pointed excitedly at him and shouted, “It’s Ghost from Game of Thrones!”). As on previous Ghost recordings, there’s a strong choral sound accompanied by gorgeously subversive lyrics. The harmonies are still reminiscent of Blue Öyster Cult, while the heavier riffs have hints of Mercyful Fate with an occasional soupçon of Slayer. Eminently listenable, deep, clever and loaded with meaning.

Favourite track: He Is.

Ghost

1= Killing Joke – Pylon

Another surprise. For decades I’ve recognised the greatness of Killing Joke. I hear their influence in myriad other bands, most notably The Cult, Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction, Front Line Assembly, and Fear Factory. Despite that, I wasn’t expecting KJ’s strongest album to date to appear in 2015. It did, though. Killing Joke are masters of their craft who don’t do anything by accident. Every detail of their sound is meticulously planned and executed. Turn this album up loud and you’ll experience a whole new dimension opening up. That’s not me overselling the band: it’s truth. Pylon is astonishing.

Favourite track: Big Buzz – pure sonic bliss.

Killing Joke

1= Paradise Lost – The Plague Within

Paradise Lost’s elemental riffs build into dirges that are both gloomy and uplifting: a technique PL have mastered over the last couple of decades.  Their 2015 offering shows that they’re once again at the top of their game.

Favourite track: No Hope in Sight.

Paradise Lost

1= Amorphis – Under the Red Cloud

Amorphis redefined metal with Silent Waters in 2007 (my album of that year by a country mile, and my equal-favourite album of all time). Since then they’ve continued to create epic music. Thematically, their songs are rooted in Finnish mythology. Each album is like a musical chapter of The Kalevala. On Under the Red Cloud they continue that tradition. The textures are vast and sweeping. Melodies flit between subtle folkiness and crushing heaviness. Tomi Joutsen’s vocals alternate between a glorious soar and a brutal roar. Masterful.

Favourite track: The Four Wise Ones.

cover ok copie

1= Children of Bodom – I Worship Chaos

Alexi Laiho has the respect of his guitarist peers not just in his native Finland, but across the globe, thanks to his lightning-fast, super-accurate sweep picking, his unique shredding style, and his neo-classical riffage, which has become CoB’s sonic trademark. Vocally, Alexi is Mr Marmite. His singing style isn’t everyone’s cup o’ tea (he sounds like he’s just had his throat cut and is gargling his own blood) but I like it. It suits the music. Despite prodigious compositional skills, technical excellence and no-holds-barred delivery, CoB had never (until now) created an album that scorched from start to finish. I Worship Chaos is that album. The balance of heaviness and melody is skilful, the delivery phenomenal. The standout tracks on the deluxe edition are Morrigan (with its awe-inspiring Everytime I Die-ish riff), Mistress of Taboo (a cover of The Plasmatics’ tune – the CoB version sounds like Scorpions’ Another Piece of Meat flung into a blender with Alice Cooper and turned up to high speed), My Bodom (I Am the Only One), and Prayer for the Afflicted. With every listen I hear something new but it’s never a weak moment – there isn’t one.

Favourite track: Prayer for the Afflicted.

Children of Bodom

1= Finsterforst – Mach Dich Frei

In 2004 a rag-tag collection of heathens formed a band in southwest Germany’s Black Forest. Their goal was to create a sonic expression of the mystical landscape around them. Collectively known as Finsterforst, they’ve gone from strength to strength, fusing various styles of metal (black, thrash, classic, folk) into a seamless whole. Mach Dich Frei is their finest album to date – an immaculate blend of ethereal instrumentals and anthemic metal. To Finsterforst’s credit, they’re the only metal band to successfully integrate the accordion in a way that’s unobtrusive and adds to their sound rather than watering it down. This says much about their classical sensibilities – they’re mindful composers, not just riff merchants who fling in the odd burst on traditional instruments and hope for the best. This band knows when an instrument should be heard and when it should be silent. They understand resonance and atmospherics. I’ve listened to Mach Dich Frei a lot. It improves with every listen. A masterpiece.

Favourite track: Mach Dich Frei – a glorious twin-guitar opening (rhythm riffs reminiscent of Megadeth’s In My Darkest Hour, and a lead refrain with the tonality of Chris DeGarmo circa classic Queensrÿche) evolves into a darker, heavier, more complex composition driven by anthemic vocals and a sense of majesty.

Finsterforst

1. Fear Factory – Genexus

Fear Factory’s Demanufacture redefined metal in 1995. Frontrunners of the industrial-metal movement, then inventors of cyber metal, they create soundscapes imbued with a futuristic dreamlike quality. FF’s music is the soundtrack to a future world in which humans co-evolve with machines, to the point where the distinction between one and the other becomes blurred. Genexus is FF firing on all cylinders: blast-beat drumming, huge riffs, eviscerating bass, machinistic rhythms alongside Burton C. Bell’s distinctive clean vocals (like the chants of a robot monk at worship) and his angry growls (like a bear who’s been kicked in the balls). Burt switches between singing styles with ease, instinctively knowing what works best with the music. The adage you can’t judge a book by its cover doesn’t apply to Genexus. One glance at the artwork tells the savvy metallist exactly what can be found inside: supreme cyber metal from the ones who do it best.

Favourite track: Regenerate – as a kid I dreamed that one day metal would sound like this. A futuristic blend of passion, power, precision, originality, melody, heaviness and confidence. Utter perfection.

fear-factory

1= Jean Michel Jarre – Electronica 1: The Time Machine

Ever since I first heard Jarre’s music (as a young child at the London Planetarium, where holographic stars and planets floated past my face as the otherworldly melody of Oxygène IV filled the air), I’ve been spellbound by it. Ever the visionary, Jarre decided to make his 2015 release different to its predecessors by composing and recording an album of collaborations. The result is refreshing and original. The pairing of Pete Townshend and JMJ looks odd on paper but in practice it works (perhaps because of Pete’s longtime love of synths, most famously heard on The Who’s milestone Baba O’Riley). A more logical union is that of Tangerine Dream with Jarre. Musically and culturally, those two entities are mirrors of each other, with Jarre’s symphonies rich in French joie de vivre while TD’s compositions possess a colder, more Germanic feel. The collaboration between these two legends culminated in Zero Gravity, a masterclass in electronica. Tangerine Dream founder/main man Edgar Froese died soon afterwards, leaving Zero Gravity as his last recording. As a mark of respect, JMJ dedicated the album to Froese.

Favourite track: Immortals by JMJ with Fuck Buttons.

JMJ

1= Ghost Bath – Moonlover

You might imagine that a North Dakotan band pretending to be Chinese musicians living in China (as Ghost Bath did to secure a deal with Chinese label Pest Records) would be a major controversy. In the strange arena of black metal, such behaviour didn’t even make the top 50 most controversial moments. (In case you’re wondering what one would have to do to score high on the scale, current top place is held by Varg Vikernes, aka Count Grishnackh, who, as the Second Wave of Black Metal was beginning in ’90s Norway, slaughtered his former friend Oystein Aarseth – aka Euronymous, founding member of the band Mayhem, founder of the mysterious Black Metal Inner Circle, and owner of influential Oslo record store Helvete – in between burning down several historic churches). So by black-metal standards – with suicide, murder, arson, assault, self-mutilation, sacrifice and blood-drinking all popular pastimes – Ghost Bath’s pretending-to-be-Chinese stunt didn’t raise many eyebrows. They were more like the cat who pretends to be your pal because he thinks there might be food in it for him (Chinese food, on this occasion). Their prank was victimless: they were devious for their own gain, but Pest Records did well out of them, too. Ghost Bath’s debut album Funeral was released to critical acclaim. By the time they were rumbled as non-Chinese the band had amassed a legion of fans who didn’t give a shit where the members were from, just as long as they continued making music. Pest Records was less forgiving, though (a surreal mirror of the Seinfeld episode The Chinese Woman, in which George Costanza’s mother takes phone advice from a woman she thinks is Chinese, then, upon meeting the woman and seeing that she’s not oriental, shouts, “I thought I was getting advice from a Chinese woman. I’m not taking advice from some woman from Long Island!”). Ghost Bath’s ethics may be up their arse but their music is amazing. Second album Moonlover was released by German label Northern Silence Productions (to my knowledge, the band hasn’t claimed to be German…yet). Moonlover is an accomplished piece of work. The vocals are inspired by Norway’s Second Wave of Black Metal (in other words, they’re the tortured howls of the damned), but the instrumentation – rather than being discordant and screechy in the lo-fi vein of much black metal – is sublimely melodic and crystal clear. Uplifting guitar melodies combine with wails of pain to deliver a sensory experience that I find exhilarating. The band claims to be all about playing from the heart and creating something beautiful. Job done.

Favourite track: Golden Number.

ghost-bath

2. Swallow the Sun – Songs from the North I, II and III

An epic triple-CD (or quintuple-vinyl) album from the band who – along with fellow Finns Amorphis, Insomnium, Wintersun, and Omnium Gatherum (as well as Dark Tranquillity and At the Gates from Sweden) – have spearheaded the melodic-death-metal movement over the past two and a bit decades. The compositions are complex, the lyrical themes mythic, the production flawless, the musical execution breathtaking, and the emotional impact profound. Songs from the North I, II and III is dedicated to StS founder/guitarist Juho’s late father. Each of the three discs has a mood of its own. Songs from the North I: giant walls of riffage, powerful vocals and a rhythm-section rumble that could crumble walls. Songs from the North II: delicate wintry melodies set against softly sung lyrics of melancholy. Songs from the North III: sonic-doom funereal dirges with occasional glimpses of light in the form of quiet interludes and female vocal harmonies. As a tribute to a father this is beautiful. As a musical achievement it is monumental.

Favourite track: The Heart of a Cold White Land.

swallow-the-sun

“These skies of the winter stars

Arise to the frozen night

And the light of summer that never dies

In these songs from the North.”

3= Joe Satriani – Shockwave Supernova

Another stunning collection of guitar wizardry from a supreme musician. Wonderfully diverse, Shockwave Supernova is another sonic smorgasbord of Satriani’s unique talent. When your instrumentals are this well composed and this perfectly executed, you don’t need vocals.

Favourite track: Goodbye Supernova.

joe-satriani

3= Myrkur – M

M is the first full-length album from one-woman black-metal project Myrkur, brainchild of Denmark’s Amalie Bruun. Having signed a deal with Relapse Records on the strength of her debut EP, Bruun was in a perfect position to further her vision of Myrkur. Despite Bruun’s insistence on referring to Myrkur as a black-metal project (the album cover couldn’t be more black metal if it tried: monochrome photo; grim grey skies; title in Viking runes; dark trees silhouetted beside a spectral female on the edge of a lake at night), her music has as much in common with Enya as it does with Venom, Hellhammer or Burzum. That’s not a complaint – just an observation. There’s also an obvious Wardruna influence (always a good thing), with lighter ethereal soundscapes flowing naturally into heavier Darkthronesque swathes. The components are blended with skill, precision and an ear for what works. I wonder what the second full-length album will bring. Will it be more black metal meets Enya for a jig in the forest? Or will it be all-guns-blazing, take-no-prisoners, burn-down-all-churches blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaack metaaaaaaaaaaaaaaggghhhhhhlllllll? I’d bet on the former, but either way I’ll be checking it out with interest.

Favourite track: Onde børn (which translates as Evil Children).

Myrkur

4. John Carpenter – Lost Themes

John Carpenter’s work revolves around film. A renowned producer, director, screenwriter, editor and composer, he’s best known for the 1978 horror classic Halloween (which he wrote and directed, as well as composing/performing its legendary musical score). Carpenter has a long string of films and soundtracks behind him but it wasn’t until 2015 that he released his first real solo album (as opposed to a movie soundtrack with his name attached to it, of which there are many). Lost Themes is a diverse array of dark electronica, all beautifully moody and steeped in Carpenter’s trademark ominous sound.

Favourite track: Vortex.

John Carpenter

5. Michael Monroe – Blackout States

Like most of Mikey’s stuff with Hanoi Rocks and as a solo artist, his 2015 album Blackout States is a slice of no-frills, gung-ho rock ‘n’ roll.  Without this man blazing the trail, there would have been no Guns ‘n’ Roses or LA Guns (either that or those bands would have taken radically different forms to the ones we know). The glam-metal boom of the ‘80s would probably never have happened were it not for Hanoi Rocks. Glam rock may have Marc Bolan, Bowie, and The Sweet to thank for its existence, but glam metal stemmed from Hanoi Rocks, both in sound and sleazy image. That influence can still be heard today, especially in Monroe’s native Scandinavia, where modern metal glamsters like Hardcore Superstar, Reckless Love and CRASHDÏET proudly tread the path Michael Monroe and Andy McCoy paved. It feels reassuring to know that Monroe himself is still cranking out quality new material, still touring, still looking and sounding as good as ever. Hail to him.

Favourite track: This Ain’t No Love Song – a track so good it makes me want to overlook the shite grammar (double negative) in the title.

Michael Monroe

6. Dave Brock – Brockworld

Lemmy’s former Hawkwind bandmate Dave Brock, the inventor of space rock, has long been recognised as a visionary who plays by his own rules, creating sweeping soundscapes with the help of hallucinogens and psychedelic drugs. While Hawkwind’s material is hit or miss to me, Brockworld is a different proposition. Inspired cosmic melodies fuse with epic vocal harmonies in a symphony of space-fuelled bliss. Turn it up loud and experience a revelation.

Favourite track: Life Without Passion.

Dave Brock

7. Ludovico Einaudi – Elements

Genius. There’s nothing I can say about Einaudi’s inspired instrumental compositions that the music can’t say better. Piano and strings in perfect harmony. Buy everything he has ever recorded. Listen to it often. Life improved, just like that.

Favourite track: Night, performed by Ludovico Einaudi with Amsterdam Sinfionetta.

Ludovico Einaudi

8. Saxon – Battering Ram

Metal legends Saxon released their debut album back in 1979. Since then they have unleashed consistently high-calibre music, crafting an unfeasible amount of iconic riffs, hooks and melodies with apparent ease. Battering Ram is another mighty album from true metal pioneers.

Favourite track: Kingdom of the Cross – the spiritual successor to Broken Heroes. Biff’s spoken-word delivery is spine-tingling.

Saxon

9. Motörhead – Bad Magic

I was tempted to place this at number 1, all alone, for sentimental reasons more than musical ones (although it breaks my heart to say it, this is the last Motörhead studio album the world will ever see). The songs are quintessential Motörhead – loud, heavy, distorted, raw, bass-heavy anthems. When Bad Magic first arrived I was discussing it with my German author/artist/musician friend Frank, a fellow ‘head fanatic. Lem was still alive at that point, but looking frail and cancelling concerts due to ill health. Frank said he was loving the album, but at the same time experiencing a bad feeling when he listened to it…the feeling that it would be the last album from the mighty Motörhead. He was right. A few months later Lem died. As swan songs go, Bad Magic is an impressive one, especially when one takes into account that Lemmy was seriously ill while composing and recording it. That makes the achievement all the more profound and Lem’s performance all the more brave. This will always be the most difficult Motörhead album for me to listen to, not for musical reasons but sentimental ones. Listen to it I will, though, often, even though it hurts. Thank you, Lem, for everything.

Favourite track: Till the End.

“Don’t tell me what to do, my friend.

You’ll break more hearts than you can mend.

I know myself like no one else – nothing to defend.

My life is full of good advice

And you don’t have to tell me twice.

Living here in paradise,

No rules that I should bend.

In my years my life has changed.

I can’t turn back the time.

I can’t tell you just what made me change.

All I know is who I am – I’ll never let you down.

The last one you can trust until the end.”

Print

10. Toto – XIV

This album is more than a return to form for Toto. It is a regenesis. They have long been a respected band, especially in AOR circles. Africa was one of the first singles I ever bought on vinyl. To this day that chorus still gives me chills. So I know how good Toto can be when the chemistry’s right, but I wasn’t expecting them to release an album this good in 2015, seemingly out of the blue. The obvious standout tracks are Burn and Orphan. My gig of 2015 was Toto at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, my first time seeing them with new singer Joseph Williams (son of John Williams – composer of the soundtracks to Star WarsSupermanRaiders of the Lost Ark and many more). Joseph’s vocals on XIV (and live) are breathtaking.

Favourite track: Burn.

Toto

11. Hearts of Black Science – Signal

This duo’s sound has elements of electronica, darkwave, shoegaze, goth, ambient, and occasionally rock (the opening of Faces – first song on Signals – is reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s Run Like Hell). Daniel Änghede’s vocals sometimes resemble those of fellow Swede Morten Harket (singer in A-Ha). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld might say. If you like dark and brooding electronica, give this a whirl.

Favourite track: Faces.

Hearts of Black Science

 12. The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy

This was my most listened-to album during training sessions in 2015. The walls of my Muay Thai gym shook to the rhythms of The Prodigy’s newest batch of adrenaline-fuelled anthems. Like only a couple of their previous albums (The Fat of the Land and Invaders Must Die), The Day Is My Enemy is consistently strong throughout. A wall-shaker.

Favourite track: Wild Frontier.

The Prodigy 2

13. Leftfield – Alternative Light Source

About time! A welcome return from one of the only bands who take longer than Guns ‘n’ Roses in between albums (there were 16 years between Leftfield’s second studio album and this, their third, while the Gunners took a mere 15 years to create Chinese Democracy). Was Alternative Light Source worth the wait? Yes and no. Yes because it’s a strong chunk of electronica with some inspired moments. No because any album that takes 16 years to create ought to be a work of immaculate genius. I’m happy to have another Leftfield album to listen to, though. Seeing them perform it live on tour was a joy.

Favourite track: Universal Everything.

Leftfield

14. Soilwork – The Ride Majestic

Close friends of In Flames (who along with Dark Tranquillity defined Sweden’s ‘Gothenburg sound’: the blueprint for melodic death metal), Soilwork play it like they mean it. To my ears, The Ride Majestic isn’t quite as strong as its predecessor, The Living Infinite (a monster of an album), but it’s no slouch either. The riffage is still jaw-droppingly perfect, Dirk Verbeuren’s drumming is still outrageously fast and precise, vocalist Björn ‘Speed’ Strid still nails every note, and the melodies are still – no pun intended – to die for.

Favourite track: Death in General.

Soilwork

15. Michael Schenker’s Temple of Rock – Spirit on a Mission

I can’t get enough of Schenker’s guitar work. Whenever I walk into a music shop and pick up a guitar, it isn’t Stairway to Heaven or (Don’t Fear) The Reaper I play to put the instrument through its paces and annoy the staff: it’s Doctor Doctor from Metal Mickey’s time in UFO. This MSToR lineup sees Schenker joined by two of his former Scorpions bandmates – Francis Buchholz on bass, and Herman ‘Ze German’ Rarebell on drums. Doogie White (a Scotsman!) handles full-time vocal duties for the second time on a Temple of Rock release. I witnessed Doogie out Spinal Tapping Spinal Tap at MSToR’s Edinburgh show in 2015, at which he said, deadpan, “This is a song about good times. It’s called Good Times.” I fell apart laughing – out-of-control, thigh-slapping, tears-running-down-the-cheeks laughter. Thanks, Doog. Spirit on a Mission is exactly what you’d hope for from three Scorpions, a Scottish powerhouse vocalist, and musical prodigy Wayne Findlay.

Favourite track: Let the Devil Scream.

MSToR

16. Queensrÿche – Condition Hüman

The ‘rÿche ranks have been infused with new energy and purpose since Todd La Torre replaced Geoff Tate on vocals. The two singers sound alike, but the infighting that had long dragged the band down and curbed their creativity is now gone. As a result, the band’s two albums with La Torre have seen a return to the urgency and inspired songwriting of ‘rÿche classics Rage for Order and Operation: Mindcrime.

Favourite track: Toxic Remedy.

Queensrÿche - Condition Hüman

17. Lucifer – Lucifer I

I bought this debut album on a whim because it’s on Lee Dorrian’s Rise Above label. So I figured it would be dark, doomy, heavy and – like everything Dorrian touches – Sabbathesque. I was right about the music but the vocals were a surprise. Female singer Johanna Sadonis gives the doomy metal a haunting edge. Also, she has the look and gravitas of a siren from a 1970s Hammer horror film – a definite bonus for a woman fronting a doom band. And with ex-members of Cathedral and Angel Witch in the ranks, this is doom metal with a pedigree.

Favourite track: Izrael.

Lucifer

18. Trivium – Silence in the Snow

In April 2016 I witnessed Trivium frontman Matt Heafy letting loose the Spinal Tapworthy line, “It’s great to be here in Kilmarnock, the most metal city in the world!” Unlike Doogie White when he made his top Tap statement a few months earlier in Edinburgh, Heafy seemed to have tongue firmly in cheek. He knew Kilmarnock was neither a city nor a hub of heavy-metal debauchery but said the line anyway, because that, when faced with a metal crowd, is always the thing to do. As long as you get the location right, you can’t really go wrong (unlike David Lee Roth, whom I’d witnessed in Glasgow shouting, “It’s so naaaaaaahce to be bayyyyyyyck in…where the fuck are we?”) Anyway, back to Trivium. They released their first album when they were in their teens, starting out as wannabe Metallica clones who then grew up, found their own sound and refined it into something majestic. They can still thrash with a vengeance, but it’s when they slow things down that their music sounds really impressive (a prime example is the intro to Down from the Sky, from the excellent Shogun album – THAT is a riff). There are several such tunes on this album (the title track, as well as Dead and GoneThe Ghost That’s Haunting YouPull Me from the Void, and Beneath the Sun).

Favourite track: The Ghost That’s Haunting You.

Trivium

19. Venom – From the Very Depths

An angry bastard of an album from the inventors of black metal. Every time it seems that Cronos has quit music, he bounces back with another surprise. The tracks on this album lack the frenetic pace of Venom’s early material, but they’re better off for it. In fact, some of these songs are tuneful! Who’d have thought it? Yet there it is: Venom in 2015=tuneful. The standout track – Smoke – should be played to aspiring metal musicians over and over again, so they can mentally file it under ‘How It’s Done’.

Favourite track: Smoke – a gargantuan riff, glorious heavy groove and gorgeously guttural vocals. Classic.

Venom

20. Hardcore Superstar – HCSS

Hardcore Superstar’s 2009 release Beg for It is one of my all-time favourite albums, so I can’t help comparing the band’s subsequent releases to it. I want everything they record to be that good. They have a gift for coming up with catchy hooks and chantalong choruses. Over the last couple of albums, however, the band has moved increasingly back to its sleaze-metal roots: slower tempo, muddier production and looser songs. They are still eminently listenable, but I wish they’d return to the sonics of Beg for It: precise metal with massive hooks and soaring vocals. HCSS isn’t a tight album. It doesn’t try to be. Rather, it ambles along with a raw, easy swagger. Still a great band on record. Still one of the greatest live bands on the planet. I just wish they’d ditch the loose sound and get back to writing metal that’s tighter than the proverbial nun’s fanny. (What is a proverbial nun anyway? Have you ever seen one?)

Favourite track: Touch the Sky – rocky psychedelia with a vibe reminiscent of fellow Swedes The Electric Boys, coupled with a vocal that sounds like Police-era Sting.

Hardcore Superstar

21. Steve Hackett – Wolflight

I’ve never been a Genesis fan, yet I love Steve Hackett’s solo material. His guitar work is sublime. He doesn’t go for the frenetic fretboard widdling favoured by so many rock guitarists. Hackett’s goal is to play exactly the right note in exactly the right tone at exactly the right time. He has mastered this. Wolflight sees Steve exploring a variety of musical styles, including medieval, rock, eastern, choral, classical and more, all handled with a deft touch. The album cover – featuring a dark and moody Steve surrounded by his wolf pack in front of a crumbling castle wall under a Full Moon – is an instant classic. Perhaps the album will come to be regarded as a classic, too. Time will tell.

Favourite track: Corycian Fire.

Steve Hackett

22. Riverside – Love, Fear and the Time Machine

Polish prog in the vein of Marillion, especially the Rotheryesque guitar refrains, which are subtle, heart-tugging and deep. The Riverside sound is undeniably proggy, yet it never veers off into self-indulgent musical wankland. How many other prog bands can say that? Beautiful songs. Gorgeous vocals. Another impressive album from the Poles.

Favourite track: Caterpillar and the Barbed Wire.

riverside

23. Europe – War of Kings

These Swedes are seasoned professionals with a masterful command of their craft. Also, they have the dubious honour of being the only iconic metal band whose definitive riff was not cranked out on a guitar, but parped out on a keyboard! These days Joey Tempest’s vocals are as smooth as ever but the band is less ballady, having morphed into a heavier monster over the years, particularly in a live setting. Seeing Europe on the Start from the Dark tour a few years ago, I was astonished by the heaviness of their performance. The melody was still present, but the guitar riffage and rhythm-section artillery would have drowned out many extreme metal acts. Even the parptastic The Final Countdown was heavied up and tuned down, so much so that it nearly blew the roof off the venue. So to 2015 and War of Kings. It’s quintessential Europe – a blend of heavy melodies, bluesy Deep Purplesque refrains, effortless soaring vocals, big hooks and anthemic choruses.

Favourite track: The Second Day.

europe

24. The Darkness – Last of Our Kind

The Darkness started out straddling the line between performance and parody. That garnered them much attention in the beginning but then left them in a strange position. They enjoyed their work and had fun with it, composing some classic tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and infusing promo videos and live gigs with their infectious brand of nonsense. This confused a lot of people. Was this a comedy act like Bad News, or was it the real deal like Thin Lizzy? I was never in any doubt. When I saw them live in Glasgow just after the release of their debut album, it was clear that this was a British equivalent of early Van Halen – a band with a flair for exhibitionism, humour, fun and fabulousness. Last of Our Kind is a serious album by Darkness standards. The effervescent energy is still present, as are the huge hooks. The music is bouncy, crunchy, punchy and in parts perfect. It’s good to have them back.

Favourite track: Last of Our Kind, with its sublime Who/Queen/Ace Frehley vibe.

the-darkness

25. Helloween – My God-Given Right

My favourite incarnation of Helloween was the one that recorded Keeper of the Seven Keys Part One – a seminal album that raised the bar for thrash excellence. Despite that lineup splitting decades ago, I’ve kept up with Helloween releases ever since. When Andi Deris joined Helloween in the ’90s, the band adapted to suit his vocals, favouring a more mainstream metal sound. They’re consummate musicians, energetic live performers, talented composers, and still flying the flag for Teutonic metal. And they’re as crazy as Basil Brush on magic mushrooms.

Favourite track: Stay Crazy, a metal classic bursting with powerful riffs, excited vocals and lunatic lyrics such as “We wanna stay crazy, as fresh as a daisy.”

helloween

26. Iron Maiden – The Book of Souls

I never thought I’d see the day when an Iron Maiden album didn’t make it into my top 3 albums of the year, never mind missing out on the top 25. The Book of Souls is by no means a bad album, but it sounds like Maiden by numbers: it lacks the vital spark of inspiration. I bought the limited Book Edition. Its artwork (by longtime Maiden collaborator Derek Riggs) inside and out is spectacular, as usual. The musical execution on the album is beyond criticism but missing are the iconic riffs, big hooks and passion on which this band built its reputation. The songs sound sterile, with not a classic among them.

Favourite track: The Red and the Black.

Iron Maiden

27. Sorcerer – In the Shadow of the Inverted Cross

This sounds like Dio mixed with Black Sabbath circa Headless Cross. There are Tarot similarities at points, too. If that sounds like your cup o’ tea, give it a whirl. Sorcerer’s musical pedigree is audible throughout, but some tracks suffer from the same symptoms as Maiden’s 2015 effort: a theatrical metal-by-numbers sound which gives those songs a generic feel. The more inspired songs, however, are doomy metal worthy of repeated listens.

Favourite track: The Gates of Hell.sorcerer

28. Def Leppard – Def Leppard

Sheffield’s favourite musical sons, having reinvented themselves several times over their mega-platinum career, return to the formula that brought their biggest commercial success: the Hysteria blueprint. (Hysteria has sold over 20 million copies…and counting.) I’m not going to judge them for that, as I love the bouncy energy of Hysteria’s hook-laden tunes – a perfect blend of power ballads, pop-rockers and polished metal anthems. In 1986 Hysteria broke new ground in terms of multi-layered songs and production (courtesy of Mutt Lange). If they were determined to emulate the sound of a previous recording, I’d have preferred it to be Pyromania (epic heavy metal rather than the pop-rock-metal-lite of Hysteria). I’m not complaining, though. A new album from the Lepps is always welcome.

Favourite track: Let’s Go – a quintessential Leppard track that shamelessly recycles the Pour Some Sugar on Me riff. (If you had come up with a riff that iconic, would you be able to resist recycling it? Some other bands make careers out of recycling the same few chords over and over.)def-leppard

29. UFO – A Conspiracy of Stars

UFO is one of Britain’s longest established and most influential rock bands. Although Glenn Hughes refers to himself as the voice of rock, I’d argue that UFO’s Phil Mogg has a stronger claim to that title. But what about UFO’s current incarnation and its 2015 album? With a different vocalist this collection of tunes might sound average, but Moggy makes them better than that. My main criticism of A Conspiracy of Stars is that UFO has a real guitar wizard in Vinnie Moore, yet on this album he’s plodding along in second gear most of the time, rarely allowed to flourish. That seems criminal, given the remarkable ability he has. I’m not suggesting UFO go all Yngwie Malmsteen and rattle out widdly histrionic musical wankfests with ten million notes squeezed into each song. That would be preposterous. Vinnie would never do that anyway, as he’s a tasteful player as well as being technically exceptional. But he could have been allowed to shine more often on A Conspiracy of Stars. It’s an enjoyable album nonetheless, but not quintessential UFO.

Favourite track: Sugar Cane – a beautiful Paul Raymond keyboard intro leads into some bluestastic riffs from the Moore man (and his best solo on the album), while Moggy’s unmistakable voice puts the UFO stamp on the whole thing.

Hong Kong

30. Scorpions – Return to Forever

Another solid album from one of metal’s longest-running (51 years!) bands. Scorpions can always be relied upon to produce quality music. They can also be relied on to fling a great big poofy ballad or three onto every album (not, once again, that there’s anything wrong with that). In terms of influence, Rudolf Schenker and Klaus Meine are to German metal what Mick and Keith are to British rock ‘n’ roll. For good reason.

Favourite track: Rock ‘n’ Roll Band (even though it steals its main riff from Deep Purple’s Burn).

Scorpions

That concludes my roundup of 2015’s finest albums. Here at Horned Helmet the Metallic Dreams sequel continues to grow into something epic. Also, a collection of my short works (entitled Heathen Howff) is now available. With zero promotion it reached #4 on Amazon’s world literature sales rankings within 48 hours of release, then plummeted thousands of places in the following week. The Icarus of unpromoted literature! So now, even though promoting feels unnatural to me, it’s time to plug the book. A grown-up Scottish answer to Aesop’s Fables (which I loved as a child and still love every bit as much), Heathen Howff contains non-fiction, fiction, poetry and philosophy, all held together by the common factor that each piece has a moral. The book can be bought for Kindle here or in paperback here. Give it a whirl. If you don’t like it I’ll eat my hat…and my hat’s a horned helmet!

front-cover

Until next time, slàinte mhath.

Mark

My Albums of 2014

It was a year of extremes.  I experienced pure bliss as well as soul-shattering loss.  So I spent the end of 2014 and the first chunk of 2015 on my ancestral isles, mourning, feeling, being, surrounded by beauty and purity, far from the wickedness in the world.  There, strange forces held me together when my whole being was falling apart.  Perhaps it was the Fae magick of my clan.  Maybe it was my own inner strength, heightened by connection to Viking roots.  It might have been a combination of both.  I know better than to question those things.  I accept them with gratitude.

To borrow a phrase from Judas Priest (more about them later), 2014 delivered the goods, musically speaking.  At the start of 2014 I predicted the year’s top four albums (although I didn’t attempt to forecast my order of preference).  I predicted correctly.  The great Hillhouse Seer Tam the Bammus would be impressed (if that reference went over your head, read my short(ish) story Revelation Was Wrong and you’ll be illuminated). For the first time, there’s a tie for my album of the year.  In each previous year one release stood head and shoulders above the others.  This year there were two.

1= Nimbatus – Realm of Darkness Nimbatus instrumentals transcend metal’s usual formulaic blueprint.  These compositions are more than mere tracks: they’re vast swathes of sound – crunching heavy riffs juxtaposed with sublime lead-guitar refrains, sweeping keyboard melodies and laser-precise drum beats.  Flourishes of strings and piano add poignance to melodies that are already loaded with emotion.  Unlike most metal instrumentalists, Nimbatus never veers into musical widdling/wanking/noodling territory.  Nothing is superfluous.  Each note carries emotion.  Not a moment is wasted.  Every detail of Realm of Darkness – composition, musical execution, guitar tones, track titles, production quality – is flawless.  Nimbatus’s mission statement is to create instrumental songs that translate darkness and sadness into music.  Job done.  And the results sound beautiful. Don’t go looking for Nimbatus music on Amazon or at your local high-street record shop.  You won’t find it there.  Go to bandcamp or reverbnation websites and you’ll find all the Nimbatus releases.  And do yourself a favour – download the tunes in FLAC format for listening to in the house, either streamed or burned onto disc.  That way you’ll hear the music in all its brilliance.  Mp3 files are handy for listening to on the move, but they’re low quality and a third of the overall sound is missing.  This music deserves to be heard properly.  Play loud.

Favourite track: it’s almost impossible to pick one, as they’re all ridiculously good.  At a push, I choose Nocturnal Ride.  Like my favourite Nimbatus track of all (Tales of the Ageless, from debut album Cyclus One), Nocturnal Ride delivers what I’ve come to know as the Nimbatus surprise: just when it seems that the track is about to finish, a new melody soars from out of nowhere, taking the tune to heights so awe-inspiring that my body hair stands up in salute.

Nimbatus

1= Insomnium – Shadows of the Dying Sun

For most of 2014 this was my album of the year.  (Insomnium released Shadows of the Dying Sun when the year had just begun, while Nimbatus sneaked out Realm of Darkness as 2014 drew to a close.)  Insomnium albums have twice before topped my annual chart (Above the Weeping World in 2006 and One for Sorrow in 2011), so I had high hopes for Shadows of the Dying Sun.  It didn’t disappoint.  Building on the Finnish melodic-death-metal sound that Insomnium created and honed, the album explores new territory.  Ville Friman makes more use of clean vocals than on previous albums, and to great effect (the clean vocals are often sung simultaneously with Niilo Sevänen’s trademark growled words – an effect that adds a new dimension to Insomnium’s sound).  Some tracks remind the listener that Insomnium can still be – when they choose – the heaviest band on the planet (check out The Gale – intro to the Above the Weeping World album – for historical evidence of this…and turn it up loud).  As on other Insomnium recordings, the band never sacrifices melody for bluster.  Even when Markus Hirvonen’s blast-beat drumming borders on inhuman, Niilo’s bass rumbles like the bowels of Satan after a dodgy curry, and the twin guitars of Ville Friman and Markus Vanhala rip holes in the egos of many other axemen, the overall sound is always richly melodic.  Delicacy is as prevalent as crushing heaviness.  This is the soundtrack to ice, cold, solitude, fortitude and inner strength: breathtaking compositions by innovators who have forged a sound truly their own.

Favourite track: opener The Primeval Dark, both an intro and a song in its own right, delivers a slow-building melody – eerie and ominous – that builds into a wave of astonishingly resonant riffage.  Huge.

Insomnium

3. Agalloch – The Serpent and the Sphere

One of the most underrated acts around, Agalloch is also one of the few non-Scandinavian bands to dabble in black metal without being discounted by their European counterparts, who invented and pioneered the genre.  Agalloch doesn’t restrict its music to any one style, though.  Nowhere (with the exception of 2008’s The White EP, inspired by classic 1973 Scottish horror film The Wicker Man, and incorporating much piano, acoustic guitar and movie snippets) is this more evident than on The Serpent and the Sphere.  I love the multi-layered depth of this album.  It’s the evolution that was hinted at on all the band’s previous full-length recordings.  John Haughm and his cohorts have matured into a musical force to be reckoned with.

Favourite track: Dark Matter Gods.

Agalloch

4. Anathema – Distant Satellites I’ve loved Anathema’s music since their first EP, back when the band was a doom-metal outfit.  Most bands find a style that works for them, then stick with it.  Not so Anathema.  More than any other band that started as an extreme-metal outfit, they have matured.  As testament to this, their last three albums have more in common musically with Pink Floyd than with their doom-metal roots.  Most bands would be afraid to change so radically, for fear of losing fans as a result.  Vincent and Daniel Cavanagh write from the heart, though, not for sales figures.  They express their vision so effectively – through music from the heart and lyrics deep in meaning – that its honesty resonates as much as its musical beauty.  The Cavanagh brothers have grown as human beings.  This is reflected in their music.  Distant Satellites is my second-favourite Anathema album (after 2010’s We’re Here Because We’re Here – my top album of that year).  The lyrical themes are profound (awakening, recognition, love, separation, loss), the music rich in heartfelt melody.

Favourite track: Ariel – one of the most beautiful compositions ever recorded.

Anathema

5. Pink Floyd – The Endless River

Forget the pish written about this album by broadsheet journalists who don’t know their arses from their elbows when it comes to music.  Most of them jumped straight onto the ‘this is a bunch of outtakes rather than a proper album’ bandwagon.  I wish so-called writers would listen to music with open ears and minds, ignoring the opinions of others, in order to form their own unbiased opinions.  That’s how folk with integrity operate.  So here’s my opinion as a longtime Floyd aficionado with integrity and an open mind.  I don’t care if the recordings on The Endless River weren’t originally intended to be put together onto one release.  Most albums – with the exception of concept albums – are a jumbled assortment of tracks that don’t have any relevance to each other but often work well as a collection of individual pieces.  The Endless River works well as such a collection, yet it has been arranged to flow together beautifully.  The album is a tribute to Floyd’s fallen band member Richard Wright, whose keyboards are high in the mix throughout.  This is fitting.  It reminds the listener that while Wright may not be walking the world anymore, his sounds are left behind, eternally resonating.  It’s difficult to listen to The Endless River without becoming acutely aware of this.  The songs are subtle, thematic, richly layered and gorgeously melodic, close to The Division Bell’s compositions in terms of structure.  Seasoned Floyd listeners will recognise tips o’ the hat to several older PF songs.  The album is a wall (pun intended) of ambient melodies and perfectly executed instrumentation.

Favourite track: Louder Than Words: the only track to feature a David Gilmour vocal.  Lyrics explore the much-publicised animosity within the group, concluding that the end result of their arguments – the music they create – is worth suffering for.  “We bitch and we fight, diss each other on sight, but this thing we do…These times together, rain or shine or stormy weather, this thing we do…it’s louder than words, this thing that we do, louder than words, the way it unfurls.  It’s louder than words, the sum of our parts.  The beat of our hearts is louder than words.”  Truth.  From somewhere, Richard Wright is looking down and smiling.  Thank you for the music, sir.  I miss you.

Pink Floyd

6. Within Temptation – Hydra

I’ve recognised Within Temptation’s talent since their earliest incarnation but until Hydra their albums were patchy affairs that contained moments of brilliance alongside uninspired music-by-numbers compositions.  There was never a problem with the band’s musical or vocal ability.  They are all accomplished musicians and Sharon den Adel’s voice has always been phenomenal.  She even achieved what I’d thought impossible (covering a Kate Bush song and improving it).  Hydra is the first Within Temptation album to live up to the band’s immense potential.  About time.  It was worth the wait.  A masterpiece.

Favourite track: Let Us Burn – symphonic metal at its most anthemic.

Within Temptation

7. Arch Enemy – War Eternal

Michael Amott rarely makes mistakes in music.  A consummate musician with immaculate taste, his various bands ooze quality and originality.  I worried when Angela Gossow left Arch Enemy, as her growled vocals – which put most male death-metal vocalists to shame – were an integral part of the band’s sound.  Amott followed Nightwish’s example (when operatically trained vocalist Tarja Turunen left Nightwish, they replaced her with a female whose vocal style was considerably different, surprising those who expected the band to employ another opera diva as a Turunen clone).  In the case of Arch Enemy, the new female vocalist was Alissa White-Gluz, formerly of The Agonist.  She has neon-blue hair.  That’s a good start.  What about her vocals, though?  Alissa’s voice is less demonic than that of predecessor Angela Gossow, but her rasp gels perfectly with Arch Enemy’s music.  Alissa is more girly than Angela (although in the arena of melodic death metal, girliness is a subjective term).  Angela Gossow looks like she’d ride you all night long, tearing your flesh open with her nails before throwing your bleeding body out the window in the morning.  Alissa White-Gluz looks like she’d beg you to ride her all night long, then she’d make you toast and a cup o’ tea in the morning.  Different styles, both good.  Anyway, back to the music.  War Eternal is a heck of an album.  Amott’s compositions are, as usual, inspired.  At several points Amott’s more sedate playing is reminiscent of The Scorpions’ Rudolf Schenker.  Instrumental Not Long for This World is even crafted around the tune of Scorps ballad Still Loving You.  Amott’s speedier shredding could be mistaken for Children of Bodom’s Alexi Laiho.  This is very much a guitar-driven album, but the other musicians leave their mark on these tunes too.  Like Nightwish, Arch Enemy lost an iconic figurehead and replaced her with someone stylistically different.  Also like Nightwish, Arch Enemy has evolved into a new – yet equally impressive – animal.

Favourite track: War Eternal – a perfect mix of tasteful riffage and fierce vocals.

Arch Enemy

8. Triptykon – Melana Chasmata Tom G. Warrior’s influence in metal is enormous.  The seminal Hellhammer was – along with England’s Venom and Sweden’s Bathory – responsible for spawning black metal and later ushering in the Second Wave of Black Metal in Norway.  Second wave bands’ extracurricular activities – violence, murder and church-burning – brought black metal to the attention of the world’s media, but while Warrior may have inadvertently co-created a genre, his violence was limited to lyrics: he was all about the music.  Warrior’s next band, Celtic Frost, influenced the thrash movement in immeasurable ways.  The early Celtic Frost albums (along with those of Germany’s Kreator) are the most original recordings of that ilk.  Triptykon is the logical progression of Celtic Frost, containing some of the same members.  Their second album, Melana Chasmata, eschews the restraints of genre in favour of communicating Warrior’s musical vision in the purest way possible.  It’s a dark album which, like Celtic Frost’s Into the Pandemonium, balances brutally heavy passages with ambient sections that feature ethereal female vocals.  Cover art is the 1975 piece Mordor VII by H.R. Giger (the third time Giger has collaborated with Warrior: he provided cover art for Triptykon’s debut album Eparistera Daimones and Celtic Frost’s classic To Mega Therion).

Favourite track: Boleskine House.  (Situated on the shores of Loch Ness, Boleskine House was home to Aleister Crowley, ‘the wickedest man in the world’, who carried out countless esoteric magickal rituals there.  Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, lured in by the house’s dark past, bought it after Crowley’s death.)

Triptykon

9. In Flames – Siren Charms

In Flames pioneered the much-copied ‘Gothenburg sound’.  On Siren Charms the Swedes stay true to the musical blueprint they created – immense energy levels, eviscerating riffs, wall-crumbling bass, precision drumming, and Anders Fridén’s superb vocals, which alternate between low growls and soaring clean tones.  Siren Charms blends heaviness and melody, delicacy and blunt-force attack.

Favourite track: Rusted Nail.

In Flames

10. Accept – Blind Rage

Many longtime metal fans have written off Accept time after time, first when Udo Dirkschneider left the band, then when he returned, then when he left again, and so on.  I’ve never done so.  I always recognised the musical excellence of the others in the band, particularly Wolf Hoffman, whose ability to compose metal anthems is rivalled by his talent for dishing them out on guitar.  Having delivered one of metal’s greatest comeback albums in 2010 (Blood of the Nations, the first Accept recording to feature vocalist Mark Tornillo) and another barnstorming release in 2012 (Stalingrad), Accept continued their upsurge with Blind Rage in 2014.  Classic metal from start to finish – anthemic, catchy and loaded with hooks.

Favourite track: From the Ashes We Rise – quintessential Accept.

Accept

11. Judas Priest – Redeemer of Souls Judas Priest is one of the bands that delivered the metal goods to me back when I was barely out of nappies.  They changed my life for the better.  To many, Judas Priest is the definitive metal band.  Certainly, and inarguably, they are responsible for the studs-and-leather image that came to be metal’s hallmark.  (Little do most folk know that this came about because JP’s vocalist, Rob Halford, bought clothes and accoutrements from gay boutiques…but that’s another story.)  Redeemer of Souls had the same impact on me as its two immediate predecessors, Angel of Retribution and Nostradamus: some tracks came across as timeless and inspired, while others sounded (and I hate to use this term to describe anything by a band as special as JP, but it’s my honest opinion) a bit generic.  Because JP recorded iconic albums such as Screaming for Vengeance, Defenders of the Faith and British Steel, which are perfect from start to finish, I expect a lot of this band.  I expect perfection.  I know they’re capable of it.  I’ve been hearing them deliver musical perfection (and watching them do so live) since I was a wayward child.  So while Redeemer of Souls is an excellent album, it’s not a classic Priest album.  This band has a monumental legacy to live up to with any new recording.  The album’s high points, and there are several, make it an essential possession for any JP fan.  Halford’s voice is astonishing, as always.  Not for nothing is he known as The Metal God.  Richie Faulkner took on the enormous task of filling KK Downing’s shoes as Glen Tipton’s fellow Priest axeman.  He has done so with confidence and excellence, both on this recording and in the live arena.

Favourite track: Cold Blooded.

Judas Priest

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