The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2015 // Part One: The Songs
Finally! The beginning of the end to the most exhausting year of new metal releases I can ever remember. This is the first of the two-part year end Best of list I compile, a little delayed this time (in keeping with the 2015 theme), and this might actually be the more difficult of the two in selecting and narrowing down. My year end songs of the year list is always problematic because ultimately there is some crossover with the forthcoming best albums list, since some of these songs were key to making those albums the best of the year. But the songs list has to also represent those isolated gems that were discovered on otherwise flawed or not so great albums, and keeping the balance between the two is always tricky. In sticking with tradition and forcing myself to be very selective and honest, these lists are limited to ten, but they were narrowed down from a shortlisted pool of about 20-25 entries. Anyway, you know the drill by now, so to quote Kramer: “Giddy up!”
The Metal Pigeon’s Best Songs of 2015:
1. Steven Wilson – “Happy Returns” (from the album Hand. Cannot. Erase.)
I had suspected for awhile that this emotional gut-punch from Steven Wilson’s 2015 masterpiece Hand. Cannot. Erase. would wind up atop this list, despite competition from some strong contenders below. Its up here because its aching, emotive, transcendent, bleak, beautiful, sorrowful, melancholic, dreamy, nostalgic, and a whole list of adjectives more. Its also the emotional apex of the album, both in its musical approach and in its lyrical perspective/situation within the content of the album’s storyline (and if you’re unaware of what that is, I’ll refer you to my original write-up on the album). Whats clever is that it comes disguised as a pop-song, complete with a little McCartney styled ““doo-doo-doo-do” and some relatively simple acoustic guitar strummed chords. It serves as a hook in lieu of an actual chorus, because our narrator is in no state to say anything that she’d have to repeat —- the words she delivers are spare, direct, and heart-shattering in their immediacy: “Hey brother, happy returns / It’s been a while now / I bet you thought that I was dead”. The framing device is that Wilson’s isolated, living-alone-in-the-city female narrator (simply referred to as H.) is perhaps finally reaching out to a long sundered member of her family via writing a letter. Maybe she’s replying to a received Christmas card, hence the invocation of the phrase “happy returns” (more common in British English than American as a response to “Merry Christmas” or “Happy New Year”), or maybe she’s initiating contact herself —- we’re never told and its left to the imagination.
Whats not left to us to decipher is her emotional state —- teetering on the edge of hopelessness she tells her brother, “I feel I’m falling once again / But now there’s no one left to catch me”. One of the most devastating verses you’ll ever hear sits precisely in the heart of the song, from the 1:32-1:58 mark, its lyrics filled with the kind of sorrow borne from regret and despair: “Hey brother, I’d love to tell you / I’ve been busy / But that would be a lie / Cause the truth is / The years just pass like trains / I wave but they don’t slow down, don’t slow down”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to this song throughout the year, but every time I’m completely emotionally engaged, and I’ll tell you… that imagery of the passing train just hits me like I’m standing on the tracks myself. This is not an easy song to listen to. You can’t let it play when your iPod is on shuffle because you’re simply not ready for its gravity, it will sink you and only cause you to play it again and again because your mood will have shifted and the Dream Evil song that was supposed to come next would sound like static in your current state of mind. Its a song that’s haunted, and like any ghost worth its name it begins to haunt you.
There was another song from the same album that I shortlisted as one of the Best Songs of 2015, that being “Perfect Life”, the other sibling related song, being about the narrator’s one-time foster sister before the divorce of her parents. It would’ve been the most bizarre entry to one of my year end lists to date, a Saint Etienne styled bass n’ drum construct with female narration and Wilson’s repeating coda arranged as more of a trip-hop affair than anything resembling rock or metal. Similarly “Happy Returns” is quite far removed from those two genres, but its inclusion on this list I believe is warranted not only because of the simple fact that I reviewed the album, but because Wilson’s connections to metal are long and deep. Set aside his production work with Opeth and Orphaned Land, or even his role in helping once doom-metallers Anathema evolve into their current progressive rock state. The man’s approach to music in terms of songwriting, musicianship, arrangement, and thematic vision shares so much in common with the values of many metal artists. Speaking of Anathema, longtime readers will remember their inclusion on this list not once, but twice in the past few years. As was the case with my Anathema inclusions, I simply couldn’t be dishonest with myself (and you by extension) and exclude a song from this kind of list simply because it didn’t sound remotely metallic. If its inclusion here prompts someone to further investigate more of Steven Wilson’s music, then I’m further justified in my decision.
2. Blind Guardian – “Distant Memories” (from the album Beyond the Red Mirror)
I was puzzled by Blind Guardian’s decision to release an abridged “standard” version of their newest album Beyond the Red Mirror, because the limited/earbook/vinyl editions of the album came with two additional tracks in “Doom” and “Distant Memories”. They were technically bonus tracks in that regard, except that this was a concept album, and they actually fit into the storyline devised by Hansi, to such an extent that when placed back into the overall skeleton of the album “Distant Memories” ended up at track number six, altering the entire standard edition sequencing (see the differences for yourself). I get that you need something to entice fans to splurge on the special editions of a new album, but usually that comes in the form of b-sides or a cover song or two. It shouldn’t come at the expense of the album’s most brilliant moment, and its unfortunate that there might be fans out there enjoying the “standard” edition of the new Blind Guardian album without realizing that they are missing out. And man would they be missing out, because “Distant Memories” is not just the best song on the album, its one of the most beautiful songs the band has ever written, a kinetically charged quasi-power ballad that seems out of time and place.
It starts out fairly casually, with Andre’s playful guitar figures dancing over some subtle woodwinds, but then the band crashes in and Hansi takes over the director’s chair with a vocal melody so impatient to display its own brilliance that we’re treated to the chorus at the :44 second mark. Said chorus is only one of the highlights in this glorious epic, but its one you will return to forever, even if you don’t really understand what its lyrics are going on about in terms of the album’s concept. They’re mysterious even when taken out of context: “But still they don’t know / They’re just caught in distant memories / Then these fools will fade away / They may not fear the fall”, yet despite their opaqueness I still find them captivating and entrancing because its the manner in which they’re sung that gives them their power. On the back of Frederik’s thundering drums, Andre and Marcus’ rhythmic guitar phrasing, majestic swells of a distant orchestra, and the sweet rivers of choral background vocals, Hansi delivers his deceptively simple lead vocal with sublime extensions of line-ending syllables. Every part is integral, the combination of everything building up to a sound that I don’t even think there’s adequate language to describe —- you listen to it and tell me, that’s not a happy sounding chorus right? Yet its not sad or angry either, its simultaneously all of those things at once and none of them at the same time. When I consider those lyrics, I think that our narrator is expressing some type of disappointment, perhaps even resignation, but the music they’re sung over says otherwise.
That ability to create music that defies written interpretation is what makes Blind Guardian not just one of the greatest metal bands of all time, but one of the greatest bands of all time —- all genres. Period. Stop. Okay, on the back of such effusive praise, why isn’t this listed at the number one spot on this list? Well I have a small gripe about the production, and the sequence that best exemplifies what I’m thinking of cues in at the 3:07-3:41 mark. We’re treated to a heart-stopping, adrenaline-racing increase in tempo and intensity in Hansi’s vocal delivery, “Whatever the cost / It will not be redeemed…”, and we can hear the orchestra swell in reaction, about to slam us against the wall with some Hollywood inspired/James Horner/Howard Shore/Michael Kamen styled sturm und drang. And it happens, sort of… you can hear it happening but thanks to an unforgivable oversight in the mix at this exact moment, you don’t feel the jolt and thrust of the booming timpani, the anger of the brass section, the near panicked notes of the woodwinds and strings in an attempt to keep everyone together. They all just get compressed and pushed below, buried under guitars and layers of vocals at a time when they should be threatening to over take the whole she-bang altogether. For quite a few people, this was a recurring complaint about the album as a whole, and one I hope will urge the band to revisit it a few years down the line in the form of a remix as they have with most of their catalog.
3. Angra – “Silent Call” (from the album Secret Garden)
There’s a reflective, almost meditative quality to this spare ballad found at the end of Angra’s Secret Garden, built on the interplay of Rafael Bittencourt’s impassioned lead vocal melody and the backing vocals that snake around him in lush layers. Its in one of those layers where we presumably hear new Angra vocalist Fabio Leone, who has been seen providing backup vocal support on this song at live shows and spots on television shows where they’ve taken a fancy to airing out the tune. They’d be silly not to, this could and should easily be a smash hit back home in Brazil —- its an easy song to love (just take a look at how many cover versions have already sprouted up on YouTube in the span of a year). In my original review of Secret Garden I noted how odd it was that much of the album didn’t feature Leone on lead vocals alone, often casting him as a partner with a guest like Simone Simons or Bittencourt himself (the latter enjoying his own duet with Doro Pesch on the excellent “Crushing Room”). Its not the expected way in which you’d want to indoctrinate your new vocalist or introduce him to your fans, but then it seems that years of various band-related problems of all sorts have pushed Bittencourt to a place where he’s discarding all expectations, structures, and rules. He gets away with it for the most part on the album largely on the strength of his own lead vocal performances —- I’m honestly asking, why can’t Bittencourt just handle the lead vocals himself? I love his voice.
What makes “Silent Call” such a poignant, emotive, and wistful song is found within its lyrics, with a narrator attempting to describe the feeling he has when staring at transcendent scenes of natural beauty. We’re placed alongside him with the line “I find myself lost in the Swedish night / Sunset it’s crying in the sky”, and in case you’re wondering, yes the album was recorded at at Fascination Street Studios in Orebro, Sweden (Jens Bogren country!). I’m particularly fond of the phrasing of “New day, sunrise / Sound the trumpets of the dawn” and Bittencourt’s vocal melody during its delivery, almost see-saw like in its ascending and descending crescendos. His ultra impassioned inflections during the final verse are all exposed nerve endings, raw in their intensity: “Spread my wings and fly / Only guided by faith / Through the darkness or light / May have the “whys?” / It’s always the same” —- its the kind of performance that suggests an expression of frustration. I like the idea of a song written about being unable to effectively communicate a kind of spiritual feeling received from witnessing something that can’t adequately be described by language. All our narrator can do is merely mention whats running through his mind during the experience, such as “…an old bag full of recent memories / Many laughs and many cries”, but that’s enough, the melodies at work here are all we need as listeners to be transported to that specific time and place.
4. Witchbound – “Sands of Time” (from the album Tarot’s Legacy)
Witchbound caught my attention in 2015 due to the curious circumstances of their formation —- they’re essentially a band formed in tribute to the recently deceased Stormwitch founder Lee Tarot. Former original Stormwitch members Ronny Gleisberg and Stefan Kauffman joined together with a handful of other ex-Stormwitch guys (from different eras of the band) and a fantastic unknown vocalist in Thorsten Lichtner to finish the final songs that Tarot had left behind unrecorded. In my original review, I wrote of the project’s inception:
Things like this have been done before for other deceased musicians, and they’re always well meaning, while almost always garnering some kind of press and media attention. In this case, there’s very little of that —- a fact that makes Witchbound’s efforts all the more poignant. Unless you’re a metal historian, chances are that Stormwitch isn’t a name that’s familiar to you: They never really blew up in any way in during their heyday, their exposure to American audiences was limited to import mail order catalogs (I don’t even think they had an American distribution deal), and they were never able to crack their home country of Germany like their peers in Grave Digger, Accept, Helloween, and later Blind Guardian.
As heartwarming as the spirit and intention of the project is, it wouldn’t be on this list unless it contained something truly fantastic —- and the real surprise is that the entire album is totally worth your time and attention, containing perhaps Tarot’s finest songwriting to date. Its muscular, traditional German heavy metal that’s spiced up with diverse instrumentation and songwriting styles. There’s triumphant, fist-pumping metallic anthems such as “Mandrake’s Fire” and “Mauritania”, but also thoughtfully composed balladry such as “Trail of Stars”. The diamond among the bunch was the shimmering, utterly gorgeous “Sands of Time”, a power ballad built on a slowly escalating bass line, chiming acoustic guitar patterns and tension building riffs. It crests when Lichtner explodes on the chorus, with a melody that soars to the very heights its referencing in its lyric: “Staring at the stars each night, waiting for a sign / Writing down four lines – a vision to rhyme…”. Credit to Lichtner on this one, because his phrasing here is impeccable, and he really just owns the vocalist role all over the album, delivering incredible performances and sounding better to my ears than original Stormwitch vocalist Andy Aldrian ever did. He’s the MVP performance wise on the album, but Tarot himself gets the overall MVP for penning such inspired songs. With “Sands of Time”, he may have delivered his best one ever, with a degree of complexity to its Medici-referencing lyrics as well as an undeniable hook that would’ve sounded at home on an Avantasia album. I’d like to think that Tarot would’ve loved what these guys did with his unfinished songs, if he only had a chance to hear them. I know I did.
5. Subterranean Masquerade – “Blanket of Longing” (from the album The Great Bazaar)
Quietly the multi-national Subterranean Masquerade released one of the most satisfyingly melodic, complex, and challenging albums of the year. I had no idea that this was their second album (first in a decade though), nor any idea who Tomer Pink was, the guitarist and songwriter at the heart of this band that consists of members from Israel, Norway and the United States. Those last two are Kjetil Nordhus and Paul Kuhr (of Tristania and November’s Doom respectively), Nordhus handling clean vocal leads with his accented prog-rock delivery while Kuhr delivers the brutality in his distinctive doom-death vocal style. The band’s sound is a diverse blend of ethnic Middle-Eastern music, progressive rock ala Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree, and Oriental metal in the vein of Orphaned Land (whose Kobi Farhi does guest vocals on two tracks on the album). It was an album that came out of nowhere, just a random promo I got one day that I had no background on. I kept coming back to the album throughout the year, finding it a pleasure to listen to for its sheer force of personality and some seriously excellent songwriting by Pink. His best one is the emotionally charged semi-ballad “Blanket of Longing”, itself a microcosm for the band’s overall sound, containing a little bit of everything they’re capable of. The real star here is Nordhus, whose clean lead vocals are simply superb, his emotive inflections during the chorus particular stirring: “Often I go back to that picture of my little boy / And I just can’t cry anymore…”. When I hear prog-metal written and performed like this, I know why other more technicality focused prog-rock/metal bands fail to move me. It should always start with a melody worth remembering, not one forgettable riff after another.
6. Luciferian Light Orchestra – “Church of Carmel” (from the album Luciferian Light Orchestra)
Its a subtle bit of irony that in an era when new retro occult metal and rock bands are getting signed left and right after the success of Ghost, one of the most intriguing projects in that vein comes from a musician that predates all those guys, namely, Therion’s Christofer Johnsson. This is a side project of his with a handful of musician friends, the only known name we have from this bunch being vocalist/photographer Mina Karadzic. According to whomever runs Therion’s social media (I suspect Johnsson himself on all fronts) Karadzic does not handle lead vocals on this particular song so I have no name to place to the gorgeous, breathy singing that adorns this gem. I’ve seen a couple people point to one Mari Paul, a relatively unknown Finnish vocalist who does seem to match the description of the woman singing in its music video, so credit to her if that’s true because the lead vocal at work here truly makes this a stellar slice of atmospheric yet hooky occult rock. There’s something seductive both sensually and spiritually about the vocal melody and the lyrics, the latter specific in its audience: “Young girl, come close / Undress and pray”. Longtime Therion lyricist Thomas Karlsson penned the lyrics on the album, and he draws upon his extensive experience in esoteric studies to inform his lyrical imagery (“A naked altar / and a priest with horn / a shade of Abbé Boullan / kneel and drink the Lord”). A part of me feels that the lyrical content here is partially tongue-in-cheek, but with a hook this magnificent we should all be joining in on the Sabbath anyway.
7. Kamelot – “Fallen Star” (from the album Haven)
Look I know I just did it above but normally I try to avoid quoting myself —- it makes me uncomfortable and I fear it could come across as a little egotistical, but I raved about this song when I first reviewed Haven and everything I wrote about it then I still feel now, so take it away Ghost of Metal Pigeon Past:
The path towards a future golden era for the band begins with the eternal classic “Fallen Star”, a supreme and glorious a moment that echoes the height of the Khan era in both melody and lyricism. Karevik’s piano accompanied solo intro to the song sets the tone and signals the approach —- that his vocal melodies will serve as the driving force and everything will yield to his will. In the mid-song instrumental bridge, Youngblood’s guitar solo echoes the vocal melody slightly by playing off its motifs, something he is peerless at. Karevik’s lyrics are evocative, with an almost Khan-like air of poetic imagery: “You are my reason to stay / Even if daylight’s a lifetime away / May the kings and the queens of the dawn / Remember my name / As dark as the fallen star”. The vocal melody guiding these words is cascading, rising and falling gently like a sloping hill, its shape infusing the lyrics with its required blend of romance and melancholy. It might be the best overall Kamelot song in a decade, a gem that matches the brilliance of songs from their classic era albums, and perhaps their best album opener ever.
Any guesses as to how bummed I was that the band didn’t play this on the recent Houston stop of their North American trek with Dragonforce? It would’ve been one thing to simply not hear it, but two of the three tunes they did play from Haven were my least favorite from what was largely an excellent album (I’m referring to “Revolution” and “Here’s To The Fall” —- the latter gets a pass because Tommy announced that he was singing it in tribute to his recently departed grandfather, but the former was just as meh live as it was on the album). I hope that Youngblood and company realize that the best way forward on future albums to continually cede more songwriting space to Karevik, he seemed to have a hand on about 75% of Haven, and its very noticeable what songs he had a direct role in shaping primary melodies and motifs. If every vocalist has a signature song or calling card, I nominate “Fallen Star” as Karevik’s for his Kamelot career (wouldn’t want to offend any Seventh Wonder die-hards out there!).
8. Nightwish – “Weak Fantasy” (from the album Endless Forms Most Beautiful)
Tuomas Holopainen rarely fails to find someway to astound me, and I remember exactly where I was when I first heard “Weak Fantasy”, driving around on various errands while playing the album through for the first time. I was in a shopping center parking lot maneuvering around to find an exit, nodding my head in rhythm Emppu’s sledgehammer riffs and marveling at how powerful Floor Jansen’s voice sounded right alongside the mighty co-lead vocals of Marco Hietala when the folky mid-song bridge kicked in and then 3:34-4:31 happened. I had to pull over into an empty area of the parking lot and simply sit there and let everything wash over me —- the violently swooping in strings, sounding as if they were the soundtrack to some hyper exaggerated ballroom waltz, Marco’s passionate vocal eruption while singing some of Tuomas’ most vitriolic lyrics ever. I hope it was as jaw dropping a moment for others as it was for me, because few songwriters are as attuned to conducting pure, broiling, emotional drama as our guy Tuomas. Oh make no mistake, you’re reading the blog of someone who is an unabashed Holopainen homer, and just like homers in sports fandom, we can criticize our rooting interest, dissect their decision making, persevere through their low points, and ignore their weaker tendencies. Why? Because we know that said rooting interest is capable of providing us with victorious moments like “Weak Fantasy”, songs that justify our allegiance. If I keep going on this particular allegorical road I’ll start questioning my time as a Houston Texans fan, because how crazy is being a fan of a football team? Wishing and hoping through years and decades of futility in hopes of one glorious moment of euphoria? In musical terms, Holopainen has already won a few Super Bowls.
9. Year of the Goat – “The Wind” (from the album The Unspeakable)
These charismatic Swedes released a hell of a fantastic rock n’ roll record this year in the vein of Blue Oyster Cult meets In Solitude, and there was quite the handful of awesome moments that could’ve ended up on this list. I was first drawn to the album thanks to Fenriz playing the seven minute plus “Riders of Vultures” on his pirate SoundCloud radio show, and truthfully that song is so awesome that it could’ve ended up on this list. But its “The Wind” that really shows Year of the Goat for the authentic rock n’ roll band that they are, purposeful emphasis on the roll part, because one of the biggest reasons I grew disinterested in rock music as a genre was that most of its new artists had no idea what a rhythm section in rock could do. I lay the blame at a combination of post-grunge and nu-metal, where the definition of rock was transformed to mean loud/soft dynamics, lazy atonal riffs, basic bass playing, uninspired drumming, and a song that found its hook in a vocalist’s knack for yarling out a melodic phrase or two. Thankfully Year of the Goat have arrived on the scene to show these radio rock idiots that yes, Maroon 5 might actually know what they’re talking about when referencing Mick Jagger and his “moves”. On “The Wind”, the rhythm section grooves, laying down a backbeat n’ rumble you can actually sway or dare I suggest… dance to (or at least move in vague accordance to, I know we’re all headbangers here). Dual guitars spit out riffs like a jam session with Izzy n’ Slash and Billy Duffy of the Cult, while vocalist Thomas Sabbathi shifts between a Ville Valo croon and a more metallic Peter Murphy or Nick Cave for the rockin’ bits. Turns out Gene Simmons was really, really wrong.
10. Faith No More – “Motherfucker” (from the album Sol Invictus)
While I wasn’t over the moon about Faith No More’s long awaited comeback album Sol Invictus, much to my disappointment, I still love its pre-release single “Motherfucker” for being one of the band’s sharpest, daring, and yes —- greatest songs of their career. Its inherently a pop song, with a convergence of hooks in Patton’s repeating vocal motif (“Get the motherfucker on the phone, the phone…”) and his wild, almost out of sync crooning soaring over the top (“Hello motherfucker, my lover / You saw it coming”). But as a pop song, its built out of strange building materials, not your typical Top 40 fluff and production gloss. First there’s Puffy’s nearly martial snare percussion, keeping us on the march throughout the verses, almost a micro-hook in itself. Roddy provides the atmosphere via keyboard arrangements built on stray notes, echoing like some distant grandfather clock, and I’m pretty sure those weird recurring noises that pop up later on are his doing too. Billy Gould’s personality laden bass rumbles all throughout… one of the things I loved about Faith No More’s sound was that it was so bass reliant, Gould plays as if he’s a guitarist, using his bass to convey melodies as opposed to purely working as a time keeper, much like another great bass player in a little band called Iron Maiden. He and guitarist Jon Hudson go nuts towards the end, the latter unwinding a pent up solo that doesn’t exactly flourish out majestically so much as crawl out, complaining out of frustration. Its a song that would’ve sounded at home on Angel Dust or King For A Day, and that’s a small victory in itself.