With 2014 underway and much exciting new music in the pipeline, let’s look at the iconic albums of 2013. It was a year that saw predictably brilliant albums released, but there were some huge surprises too. Read on, fellow rocker, for an overview of the sounds that made my 2013 a scorcher. In true metal style, here are my eleven favourite albums of the year, starting with number one.
1. Joe Satriani – Unstoppable Momentum
A true virtuoso, Joe Satriani invents new sounds, new dimensions of guitar music, new ways to push the envelope. Unstoppable Momentum contains eleven astonishing instrumentals. Don’t be put off by the absence of vocals; Joe’s guitar melodies are so beautiful that words would only get in the way. Personal favourite track: for pure distilled emotion, I’ll Put a Stone on Your Cairn.
2. Ghost – Infestissumam
A natural successor to debut album Opus Eponymous, this is a perfect blend of Mercyful Fate/King Diamond lyrical themes, Blue Öyster Cult melodies and enough originality to transcend accusations of plagiarism. Sweet vocal harmonies and church-organ backing are balanced by clean riffing and deliciously evil lyrics. Personal favourite track: Monstrance Clock.
3. Queensrÿche – Queensrÿche
A huge return to form for the Seattle pioneers. New vocalist Todd La Torre infuses the quintessential ‘rÿche sound with fresh energy on eleven songs that ooze quality. Soaring vocals, sublime guitars and that wonderful rhythm section combine to create the year’s most unexpected musical surprise. Don’t confuse this incarnation of Queensrÿche (which contains three founder members) with the other Queensrÿche (which contains only one founder member: estranged vocalist Geoff Tate). Legal battles – over who has the right to record and tour using the Queensrÿche name – won’t be settled until at least spring 2014. In the meantime, both versions of Queensrÿche are recording and touring. Confused? So are they! Geoff Tate is an excellent vocalist, but it’s the lineup featuring founder members Scott Rockenfield, Eddie Jackson and Michael Wilton – with Parker Lundgren on guitar #2 and Todd La Torre on vocals – that has remained true to the iconic Queensrÿche sound. Personal favourite track: the staggeringly brilliant In This Light.
4. Amorphis – Circle
Amorphis albums are vast pastiches of epic lyrics and musical complexity. From their melodic-death-metal roots, this band has blossomed into a genre-defying beast with absolute mastery over its craft. Personal favourite track: Mission.
5. Blood Ceremony – The Eldritch Dark
This album arrived from out of the blue, a gift from my brother-in-metal Jimmy McCarthy. Before playing the CD, I was drawn in by the ornate cover artwork and Wicker Man themes. It’s said that one can’t judge a book by its cover, but in this instance the artwork is an indicator of the sonic brilliance inside. The songs are doomy and retro, fusing elements of Jethro Tull, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Rush, Rainbow and other classic bands, yet managing to sound fresh and vital. Driving back to Scotland after Wintersun’s 2013 gig in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, I played this album on repeat for the entire journey. It improved with each listen. Even after five or six successive plays, I never felt any desire to change the CD. Personal favourite track: Drawing Down the Moon.
6. Wardruna – Yggdrasil
When Kvitrafn and Gaahl (infamous for their other bands, Emperor and Gorgoroth respectively) formed Wardruna to create music inspired by their Scandinavian ancestral roots – specifically the runes – they piqued my interest. Wardruna’s first album, Runaljod – Gap Var Ginunga, was unlike anything created before. Recorded primarily in a Norse forest, it incorporated the sounds of wind, rain and nature alongside rhythms of ancient instruments and chanted vocals. The result was a collage of profound, transcendental tunes that are part of nature, not the product of digital technology. Breathtaking. On this, Wardruna’s second album, they introduce a scintilla of electronic instrumentation – mainly keyboards – but in a way that remains true to the original blueprint. The vocals of Lindy-Fay Hella, third member of the band, alternate between angelic caresses and fierce norn’s growls. Truly original and absolutely magical. Personal favourite track: Sowelu.
7. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks
During the five-year NIN silence after The Slip, I hoped that Trent Reznor’s seclusion was a creative one and that he was once again pouring his soul into cathartic Nails soundscapes. He didn’t disappoint. Hesitation Marks is a swathe of gorgeously delicate melodies interspersed with Reznor’s inimitable pained vocals. Personal favourite track: the raw and vulnerable Find My Way.
8. Amon Amarth – Deceiver of the Gods
Viking metal at its best. Personal favourite track: Deceiver of the Gods.
9. Saxon – Sacrifice
While other NWOBHM bands have slowed down, retired or split up, Saxon – the band that got me into metal in the first place – keep writing, composing, recording and touring at a rate which would exhaust regular mortals. To my ears, there hasn’t been a weak Saxon album. Even during the band’s dalliance with a lighter, more US-friendly sound (Innocence Is No Excuse, Destiny), the quality of songwriting and musical execution was unquestionable. Today’s Saxon is a heavier beast, more power metallists than radio-friendly rockers. Sacrifice is a natural successor to Lionheart and The Inner Sanctum. As always, Biff Byford’s vocals sound like they come from a larynx of polished chrome. The clean-toned twin-guitar attack of Paul Quinn and Doug Scarratt, now well established in the band, is razor-sharp. Nibbs Carter and Nigel Glockler provide a rhythm section as solid as any in metal. The songs are masterfully crafted examples of anthemic metal. Personal favourite track: the epic masterpiece Guardians of the Tomb.
10. Metal Church – Generation Nothing
Despite being one of the most underrated outfits of all time, Metal Church influenced many other bands, most notably ‘80s Metallica. MC’s definitive recording – The Dark – is one of metal’s milestones: a perfect album in every way. The band has survived tough times, including the tragic death of singer David Wayne, to produce consistently strong material. Generation Nothing is the sound of innovators who have nothing to prove; they’re doing things their way, flying in the face of fashion and fad alike, to create metal that’s timeless. Personal favourite track: Generation Nothing – a masterclass in precision thrash.
11. Hardcore Superstar – C’mon Take on Me
Hardcore Superstar’s Beg for It was my album of 2009 by a substantial margin. Its combination of super-tight musicianship, huge singalong hooks, phenomenal drumming, raw vocals and perfect production made it one of the most iconic albums ever recorded. HS’s immaculate melodic sensibilities make them incapable of creating music that’s less than great. C’mon Take on Me is a different animal from Beg for It – looser, rawer, less fierce and less polished – yet it’s a strong album in its own right: anthemic metal with swagger and sleaze in spades. They make it sound easy. Personal favourite track: C’mon Take on Me.
So there you have it – my albums of 2013. Not an easy selection, as myriad other albums made my longlist, among them recordings by Darkthrone, Motörhead, Soilwork, Fish, Blackmore’s Night, Ihsahn, Children of Bodom, Burzum, AFI, Sarah Brightman, Ulver, Dream Theater, Megadeth, Front Line Assembly, The Ocean, and Tom Keifer. My friends Thunderfuck and the Deadly Romantics finally got around to releasing an album (and a fine chunk of Mindwarpesque metal it is too) and touring. I saw them a few times (no mean feat, considering that they’re banned from every venue in Glasgow) and enjoyed the performances (as well as betting on what point frontman Bruce would keel over drunk at). Special mention must go to Nimbatus, the one-man project that never fails to astonish me with music that’s poignant, beautifully melodic and crushingly heavy. Sounds like a paradox, I know, but Nimbatus pulls it off with aplomb. There was no Nimbatus album in 2013, but there were several singles and an EP, all of which showcased gorgeous compositions. Had those tracks been compiled into an album, it’d have been right up there battling for the top spot with Satch. If you enjoy the dark sounds of Paradise Lost, early Anathema, My Dying Bride, and appreciate the instrumental wizardry of Joe Satriani and Paul Gilbert, do yourself a favour and check out Nimbatus on bandcamp. If you don’t like it, I’ll eat my hat (and my kilt). This musical genius deserves to be huge. Let’s make it happen.
So what’ll be the album of 2014? Favourite has to be Insomnium, whose Above the Weeping World and One for Sorrow were my albums of 2006 and 2011 respectively. They’ve completed work on their new album, which is at the mixing/mastering stage now. I’ve been lucky enough to hear previews of some tracks…and they’re out of this world. Other possibilities for the top spot are Agalloch, if they release something in 2014, or the fourth Nimbatus album, if it emerges from deepest, darkest Germany to bless our ears with its incomparable melodies. There will be surprises, too. One thing’s for sure – music’s alive and well. So tonight I’ll light a Peruvian cigar to 2013’s great recordings while raising a glass to the sonic wonders to come in 2014.