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.
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 Chance, World 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…