The Metal Pigeon’s Best of 2015 // Part Two: The Albums
And we’re here, closing the book on 2015 with a look back at the best albums of the year! I’d like to think that this will be my last word on this crazy, release loaded year but I know that I missed a lot of albums due to being overwhelmed with new music all throughout the year (so don’t be surprised to see something else pop up in the future about a lost or forgotten 2015 gem). Like I said in the preamble to my best songs list, this was the most exhausting year in metal that I can ever remember, and I usually try to get these lists out in the middle of December but simply playing catch-up pushed me into the holidays and beyond. Thanks to everyone for the patience you had for my unpredictable updating throughout such a turbulent year, and for continuing to read the blog and participating too —- when you guys leave comments on articles or Twitter or Facebook, it motivates me to keep writing! When I started this blog I didn’t think I’d have one regular reader, let alone a whole community of smart, incredibly friendly metal aficionados with really interesting takes. I hope this list was worth all your waiting!
I’ll boil down the list criteria by saying that I selected this year’s chosen ten from a larger pool of twenty-two shortlisted albums. In considering their placement on the list, I heavily weighed and took into consideration my iTunes/iPod play counts, and though they’re not always the determining factor, they’re almost always the tiebreaker as well as a way to keep myself honest. I like to limit year end lists to ten because it forces me to scrutinize harder and make tough cuts, and because I think lists that go to twenty-five or fifty albums are ridiculous in that the order of numbers past ten doesn’t really mean anything or tend to have any logic behind it. There were a handful of albums that I gave relatively good reviews of throughout the year that don’t appear here, and I’m okay with that because these ten really are the most deserving of another round of glowing praise. Read on!
The Metal Pigeon’s Best Albums of 2015:
1. Amorphis – Under The Red Cloud:
In case you missed my Amorphis / New England Patriots analogy in my original review for Under The Red Cloud, we sit here just a day removed from the Patriots once again making the AFC championship game, a win away from their second Super Bowl appearance in a row, so do yourself a favor and give it a glance. It may be a nutty comparison, but I think it illustrates just how impressive this band’s run has been with delivering quality albums year after year since their recruitment of Tomi Joutsen as lead vocalist (and for awhile before that too). These guys are like the Patriots, perennial (so to speak) post-season contenders, and that means that they always harbor the possibility of getting hot and making that run to a championship (or in Amorphis’ case, releasing the third masterpiece of their career). For you non-sports guys and gals… don’t worry, the analogy stops here: Simply put, this was not only the album that I listened to the most in 2015 (which is saying something considering it was released in September) but in my estimation the only flawless album to be released all year. You’d think that would make it a shoe-in for this number one spot, but it had some serious competition with the runner-up below… my nod going to Amorphis on the basis that it would be utterly dishonest for an album that I never skip tracks on to get bumped below one that I do.
The band hit upon something magical with Under The Red Cloud, an album that seems to run on a distinctive sound separate from anything else they’ve done —- there are recurring melodic themes and motifs at work here that while never entirely repeating are suggestive enough of each other to make everything sound cohesive. That its lyrical subject matter is not based on the Kalevala is also something of a distinction, the album instead being a loose collection of songs about the theme of existing and living in the troublesome modern world today, hence the ominous Red Cloud of the title. The lyrics continue to be outsourced to Finnish poet/artist Pekka Kainulainen, translated by one Ike Vil, and then given to Joutsen to adapt into vocal melodies —- a three part process that has to ensure that the original intent and perspective is not lost in translation. That perspective was a huge factor in a lyric geek such as myself falling in love with this album, because as I noted in the original review, they came across as if “you’re listening to words that could be recited by someone sitting around a flickering campfire telling you long remembered stories”. Kainulainen rarely relies on metaphysical ideas in his poetry-lyrics, instead choosing to paint emotive scenes with gritty, concrete imagery such as found in nature, a vivid example showing up in the very first verse of the album on the title track:
I retired to a towering mountain
Laid down in a circle of stones
For three days and for three nights
I listened to the skull of a bear
The sun burnt its sigil into my chest
The rain washed the evil away
Time spun itself around me
The moon cast its silvery shell
This approach gives the album a earthen, windswept, ancient feel that seems to influence its often Eastern sounding melodies. Joutsen is also perfect as their interpreter, introducing inflection on all the right words or syllables, and his accented vocal giving them a gravity that they deserve (their impact would be diminished if they were being sung by some American radio-rock schlep).
Joutsen also comes bearing surprises on this album, namely, the surprising amount of full on death growling vocals that are on display across nearly all of the album. Its an unexpected change of direction for a band that had been largely moving away from death metal tendencies as recently as Skyforger, even though its usage popped up here and there on 2013’s Circle. Only lead-off single “Sacrifice” goes without Joutsen’s doomy-death metal vocals on Under The Red Cloud , and that’s likely the reason its the first single. It also happens to be one of the album’s best songs, with a rather stunning music video to boot, one that makes terrific use of the always surprising Scandinavian countryside (kinda looks like Texas in some parts apparently). Joutsen’s ability to deliver incredible clean vocal melodies over phonetically dense lyrics such as “Come when the sun has gone away / When the warmth has gone” is one of the major reasons he should be name dropped in any conversation about best metal vocalists working today. Guitarist Esa Holopainen is of course one of a small few of Finnish musicians who are masters of expressing melancholy through their melodies, and he does not disappoint here, his eloquent guitar motif brushing the song with autumnal colors. I love Holopainen as a songwriter because like his surname sharer in Nightwish, he brings an armload of hooks and awesome choruses to the table, and his songs on the album are testament to that.
His songwriting partner in crime is keyboardist Santeri Kallio, who this time brings in a handful of uptempo, expansive, and bright songs to serve as the yang to Holopainen’s more dark, brutal, melancholic yin. For all of Holopainen’s innate ability to serve up memorable singles, Kallio is matching him step for step on this album, bringing to the table songs with keyboard forged melodic motifs that are captivating and hypnotic in their own right. His best one to date is also my personal favorite of the album, the cascading, rollicking, punchy and brutal “Bad Blood”, the most headbanging-inducing song of the year. Its startling to hear such a keyboard driven song also be so utterly heavy, but Kallio is talented enough to balance its pop sensibilities with the heaviness of the guitars by allowing Joutsen to shoulder the burden of the primary melody when the keyboards fade. Kallio also works wonders on the majestic, folky “Tree of Ages”, featuring Eluveitie’s Chrigel Glanzmann on flute and tin whistle —- and if the smoky, acoustic intro doesn’t draw you in, the almost folk-dance like quality to the guitar work during the pre-chorus bridge most definitely will. I love that this song is simultaneously loaded with pretty, delicately performed melodies yet also brutal in a near guttural way, with Joutsen delivering one of his heaviest melo-death vocal performances to date. Its a microcosm of the entire album, a perfect witches brew of everything Amorphis do so well and only like they can. This was from start to finish an enthralling album, one I was listening to everyday for weeks unending it seemed, and one I’m happy to call the album of the year (or their Vince Lombardi Trophy!).
2. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.:
Where to start with this one? I guess the only surprising thing about seeing it on this year end list is that its not sitting at the top of it, and I’ll get to that in a bit. Its worth saying that Hand. Cannot. Erase. is one of the few albums released in 2015 that truly deserves all the praise heaped upon it (and praise has been heaped, in heaping amounts!). Its been a long time since an album has drawn me so fully into its backstory, delivered such a compelling and sensory overloading media experience, with its songs leaving me emotionally drained and listless. That it happened at all was the first shock to my system that Steven Wilson delivered with this one, because truth be told I was kind of on the outside looking in with him. I explained it in my original review in greater detail, but suffice it to say I was not the biggest fan of his last two solo outings, and I missed Porcupine Tree terribly (because their last album, 2009’s The Incident, was the last work by Wilson that I really felt some sort of interest in). It’d be presumptuous to say that this album restored my faith in Wilson’s work —- I didn’t lose faith in him producing interesting work (plenty of people loved those albums that I didn’t care for), I had lost faith in my ability to appreciate his work, and he restored that by telling me a story that left me chilled, saddened, and also hopeful and determined.
That story was about two characters, the fictional H. at the heart of Hand. Cannot. Erase., and the very real Joyce Carol Vincent, a woman who died in her London flat and whose body went undiscovered for over two years. I was first introduced to her story in an interview with Wilson just before the album came out, where he mentioned having seen a 2011 documentary about Vincent called Dreams of a Life. I sought out and watched the documentary myself, and was shaken by what it revealed, but I was more intrigued by Wilson’s own reaction to the story and how it mirrored my own. Vincent’s story was baffling and tragic because she wasn’t a “little old bag lady” as Wilson summarily put it, she was actually a well-heeled, popular, attractive young woman who seemed to be at the center of the social circles she flitted in. Wilson recalled his own experiences as a young musician living in the heart of London, a vast, major metropolis, and how he didn’t even know the names of his neighbors in the flat he lived in. In my review, I quoted him: “If you really want to disappear, go and live in the heart of the biggest city, surround yourself with millions of other people. Go right to the place where the most people live and you will disappear.” I brought it up with my MSRcast co-host Cary when we were recording an episode one night, and he confessed that he didn’t know who his neighbors were either —- on a street he’s lived on for years! I thought about my own apartment, how I didn’t even know the people who lived across the breezeway from me. It was an alarming realization.
The album took these thoughts of mine and put them through an emotional thresher, as I sat down with my Blu-Ray edition and in a darkened room watched the life of H. flit across my screen in photographs. Wilson’s character is not an exact replication of Vincent in fiction form (in fact H.’s biography is quite different), but she’s clearly inspired by her, and Wilson detailed it out to an extreme length —- the deluxe hardback book edition of the album featured photographs, diary entries, actual newspaper clippings printed on faux newsprint, and letters telling the more detailed story of H.’s life. In setting her story to music, Wilson wanted to reflect the urban setting his character was living in, and so he dreamed up a schizophrenic hodgepodge of sugary pop, hypnotic trip-hop, quiet English folk, avant-garde noise and tied it all together with progressive rock with a little splash of Porcupine Tree’s flirtations with metal. No one song sounds the same on this album, and yet for the most part they are all equally as compelling, each one a snapshot of a slice of H.’s life at a different point in time. Take for example the title track, which bounces and blooms as a sunny pop song about relationships and love, that is until you read deeper into its lyrics, narrated by H.: “It’s not you, forgive me if I find I need more space / Cause trust means we don’t have to be together everyday”. Wilson doesn’t come out and clonk you on the head with a megaphone yelling about how his character has anti-social, isolating tendencies —- he creates illustrations that show you.
There’s so much about this album that I purely love that its hard to narrow down specifics, but “Perfect Life” deserves a brief mention because not only is it the album’s most adventurous track (I’ve been favorably comparing it to Saint Etienne a lot, and if you’re unfamiliar with that band, well, you know what you need to do), but it evokes nostalgia in the way that only Wilson can. Its dreamy, atmospheric video of H. and her temporary foster sister (or a vague representation of them) playing in sun soaked hills and fields was the best music video I’ve seen in years. I was also enraptured by “3 Years Older” and its wistful folk-rock, with devastatingly brutal lyrics about growth and age. I’ve spoken at length about my love for “Happy Returns”, but not nearly as much about the musically charming but lyrically haunting “Routine”, where Wilson turns daily chores into poetic lyricism: “And keep making beds and keep the cat fed / Open the Windows let the air in / And keep the house clean and keep the routine / Paintings they make still stuck to the fridge”. I guess the stopper in why it ultimately isn’t my overall best album of the year is because I wasn’t too wild on the jazz-funk-prog of “Home Invasion” or “Regret #9”. They’re not bad by any means, but I only hear them in untouched album spins, meaning they don’t ever receive distinct attention from me on their own merits. It was hard to justify giving the title to an album that I found musical flaws with when there proved another that had none. That being said, no album took me on such an emotional journey or left me with so many unanswered questions as this one, and its the spiritual album of the year for that alone.
3. Draconian – Sovran:
At the beginning of 2015, I thought that it would be the year of the legends, the veterans that were slated to release new albums and were going to show up in force, delivering one masterpiece after another in defiance of the passage of time and changing tastes. That didn’t quite happen as magnanimously as I hoped, but what did happen that was entirely a surprise was a changing of the tide in female fronted metal. A subgenre that had grown stale with cliched sounds of classical sopranos and/or lightweight voices has found a new group of talented singers with raw emotion and gravitas in their vocal styles. To be fair, I think this is something that really started off under the radar for the past three years or so, but its in surveying the landscape of 2015 in which we’re able to clearly see how this facet of metal has changed for the better. Realize that while I say that, I’m acknowledging that the best female fronted metal album did not come from my beloved Nightwish, who released a strong album to be sure, but one that failed to thrill me as much as I had hoped (or as much as 2011’s Imaginaerum did). No, the honor for the best female vocal metal album goes to gothic/doom metallers Draconian for Sovran, and its simply one of the year’s most compelling listens. Its probably presumptuous of me to insist upon this being the best album of their career as well, because I’m relatively new to the band, having been introduced to them sometime after their last release (2011’s A Rose for the Apocalypse)… but seriously, its the best album of their career.
I suppose that’s also my way of suggesting that if you’re new to Draconian, start here first, and never mind that its their first with new vocalist Heike Langhans. She’s replacing their original and longtime vocalist Lisa Johansson, but the differences between the two are far more subtle than the obvious stylistic differences between say Tarja and Anette in the Nightwish transition (or another Finnish band, as you’ll soon learn when you scroll down below). That isn’t to say they’re interchangeable, because Langhans’ voice comes across as a touch deeper, and smoother than Johansson’s higher register, and as a result sounding more naturally ethereal. I prefer her style because it seems like the band responds to it better —- Sovran is a testament to that. This is such an organic sounding album, and one that’s innately an emotional one, its sound reflecting loneliness, sadness, empathy, yearning, even cosmic emptiness to name the most apparent aspects, all blended together. Its a sound that’s conveyed as equally through Langhans’ enchanting singing as it is through the lead guitar tone of Johan Ericson, his long sustaining open chord patterns filling in the emotional frequency where Langhans’ leaves off. Strangely, by shifting their songwriting further away from their doom oriented past and leaning a little more towards gothic metal, Draconian has actually gotten more rhythmic and heavier as a result; their rhythm section working in tandem to build hypnotic, groove oriented beds where tempo shifts seem far more natural than they ever have on past records.
In my original review, I gushed about Langhans’ abilities to introduce duality in her performance, pointing out how her distant, detached ice queen delivery on “Stellar Tombs” contrasted with her burning, fiery vocal on “Rivers Between Us”. She has a plethora of brilliant moments across the album, such as her ascending, almost soothingly sung warning during the bridge of “Dusk Mariner” at the 4:56-5:25 mark (followed immediately by a gorgeously emotive guitar solo, again serving as another example of lead guitar working as a lyrical instrument). In the middle of “No Lonelier Star”, she projects convincingly bleak desperation during the 4:15-5:12 bridge, demonstrating her ability to dial up intensity and squeeze the most out of the lyrical mood, something that is undervalued in metal where we often get preoccupied about the technicality of vocal deliveries. But my absolute favorite moment is on the anguished ballad (or as close to it as you’re gonna get on Sovran) “Rivers Between Us”, during the 2:50-4:12 mark, where guest vocalist Daniel Anghede (of Crippled Black Phoenix) delivers an awesome Sentenced-like lyric “Let me take the noose from our necks and carry us home / Still so alive, even after you die, transcending with time”. When Langhans’ joins him a little later to sing “Wake me slowly or watch me fall”, the music skips a few beats and they’re both a cappela for a moment before Ericson joins them with yet another superbly dark and sweet guitar fragment. On Sovran, Draconian seem to be finishing each others’ sentences, and what a haunting story they’re telling.
4. Jorn Lande and Trond Holter – Dracula: Swing Of Death:
I remember with a tinge of regret how I quietly snickered at the news that Jorn Lande was going to release an album called Dracula: Swing of Death. Of course he would I thought, this was the same guy who released an album called Bring Heavy Rock to the Land (why it wasn’t spelled Lande I’ll never understand!), so a concept album about Dracula? Yep, sounded about right. This was sometime in late 2014, and a few months later in February of 2015 I was eating my snarky words. It only took a few complete spins of this admittedly oddball, out of nowhere, one-off (presumably) project before I realized that I was listening to something spectacular. I didn’t know much about Trond Holter before this album, but have learned since that he’s been a jack of all trades guitarist for various projects including a long term stint as one fourth of the Norwegian glam rock band Wig Wam (Eurovision contestants themselves). I’m not all too clear on how or why or when this collaboration got started, but I suppose that’s less important than talking about why it actually works. It works because Holter’s songwriting style is wild, unabashed hard rock tempered with pop smarts (as in big, fat, huge hooks), and it complements Jorn’s perfectly suited vocals. And it really works because both Holter and Jorn are shrewd enough to realize that writing a concept album about Dracula is a little silly, and therefore the music should be, well, a little silly.
So instead of adhering to the straight-faced power metal approach Jorn has taken in Masterplan and Avantasia, Holter mashes up glammy hard rock, a little power metal virtuosity, and a huge helping of ’50s/’60s rock n’ roll pastiche ala Meatloaf to create an old-school rock opera —- one I haven’t heard executed so brilliantly since Green Day’s masterful American Idiot. So on the title track “Swing of Death”, we’re treated to an intro of jazzy, snappy percussion and jaunty piano (think Shakey’s Pizza), and Jorn singing along in his best rockabilly strut —- all before the song explodes with the entrancing backing vocals of Lena Floitmoen Borresen supporting Jorn during the refrain. She’s the hidden MVP of this album, a guest musician that doesn’t get top billing but ends up on five of its ten songs, with lead vocal parts on four of them. Her voice is Rent on Broadway meets 80s pop-rock rasp, a perfect mix that makes her lead parts on “Save Me” come across so charmingly retro, loose and carefree in their delivery. It might be the best song on the album, Borresen’s honeyed vocal on the chorus an earworm as big as Ancalagon the Black, and she’s a fantastic duet partner for Jorn, not so much singing with him in its climatic final minutes as they’re singing to each other. Its such a lush, vibrant, and yes fun(!) moment that I can’t help but smile every time I hear it.
Holter deserves praise here as well, because these are terrific songs and he seems to have an innate sense of when to lean a little more rock n’ roll and when to tighten up with some power metal-esque musicianship. Check out the flurry of speedy old-world styled acoustic guitar runs in “Masquerade Ball”, a song that lives up to its title, with unorthodox songwriting that ditches any use of a chorus in favor of musical motifs and lyrical storytelling —- Jorn is in his element here, playing up to his role of Dracula with aplomb and gusto. Towards the end of the adrenaline injected rocker “Queen of the Dead”, Holter serves up some more unexpected guitar virtuosity with a classically inspired extended solo that draws on equal parts Van Halen as it does Malmsteen. And once again I’ll come back to Borresen’s tremendous contributions, such as on “River of Tears” where she solo floats a sugary, sparkling chorus in between Jorn’s heavy metal thunder verses. The mid-song bridge here at the 2:05 mark is a vivid highlight of just how playful the tone of this album can get, with Jorn’s sly vocals slinking around like Nosferatu in his castle in black and white, while Holter channels Brian May over some ragtime piano. Everything just comes together so well, the music serves the concept and the concept allows for the music to be as unrestrained, playful, and joyful as it sounds —- this might be one of the most fully realized albums of the year. My skepticism about it turned to surprise, to giddy happiness, and now to conviction. If you haven’t given this a shot, you’re not being fair to yourself.
5. Amberian Dawn – Innuendo:
There’s always a sleeper hit of the year. One of those releases that sneaks up on the other albums competing for a spot on the year end list and before long you’re knocking off an early year favorite to make room for it. In this case Amberian Dawn sneaked in relatively late to the party in October (certainly not as late as last year’s December surprise list topper Triosphere), and it wasn’t until November that it finally dawned on me that I had been giving it a lot of repeat spins without even realizing it… hey, it was a crazy year guys. Finland’s Amberian Dawn have been around since 2006, are on their second vocalist —- the supremely talented Capri Virkkunen, and my first exposure to them comes on their seventh studio album Innuendo. Better late than never I suppose, and in this case I think I’m catching the band at a pivotal moment, one where they are finding a uniqueness to their sound that is setting them apart from anyone else in the female vocal-led metal world. On a cursory listen of this album you’ll hear very slickly produced, almost glossy power metal with strong pop songwriting fundamentals (strong hooks and a lot of major keys), but give the album more time and you’ll hear that the tone and timbre of Amberian Dawn both musically and vocally is unlike anything else being done in metal.
I’ll just come right out and say that I love this album because of its deep, overt ABBA-influence, a tendency reinforced by primary songwriter/guitarist Tuomas Seppala and Virkkunen’s unabashed love for the Swedish pop institution. Listening to Innuendo, you get the feeling this is a style of songwriting that Seppala has been wanting to deliver for a long time, and he now finds himself paired with a singer who feels the same way. Its interesting to note that Virkkunen had even performed in an ABBA related musical sometime after her attempt at a conventional pop career didn’t take off (oh yeah she also performed in a few Eurovisions, to further the ABBA connection I’m making). Seppala is on record as stating them as influences, in fact he even posted a shot from their “Happy New Year” music video on the band’s Facebook page on New Year’s Eve (not sure how many people got that reference, I sure did!). This is a relatively new development, started in part on Virkkunen’s first album as vocalist, 2014’s Magic Forest, which seemed to be a bridging album from the band’s more operatic vocally inclined albums with previous singer Heidi Parviainen. In fact, to me it seems like Amberian Dawn’s shift from Parvianen’s classical approach to Virkkunen’s pop-rock belting closely mirrors their countrymen in Nightwish with their changing from Tarja Turunen to Anette Olzon.
Like Nightwish with Olzon on board, Amberian Dawn has been able to begin a transformation of their sound away from the limitations of symphonic power metal. Seppala now writes with more of an ear towards pop, of the sophisticated and complex variety, the kind that Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson perfected more than three decades ago. I hear shades of “Money, Money, Money” in “The Court Of Mirror Hall”, and a little “I Have A Dream” in “Angelique”, and composites of various ABBA classics on gems like “Innuendo” and especially “Knock Knock Who’s There” (whose title seems like a tongue in cheek homage towards ABBA songtitles like “Honey, Honey” and “I do, I do, I do, I do, I do”). That particular song is an absolute joy to listen to, with Seppala’s songwriting lean, sharp and with hooks built into hooks —- most coming in the form of Virkkunen’s own backing vocal tracks that are layered to create the effect of her singing with a partner. I can’t get enough of the timbre of her voice, seemingly a perfect blending of Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. And look, don’t let your takeaway here be that Amberian Dawn have nothing original to offer —- I think what they’re doing here is bold and fresh, taking an often ignored influence on metal and embracing it. This is very much an album built upon a metallic foundation, but one that’s not afraid to embrace other genres and mix things up. Virkkunen might be the surprise talent of the year, her versatility as a dramatic singer and rock n’ roll belter reminding me of how refreshing it was to first hear Triosphere’s Ida Haukland. These ladies are changing the sound of female fronted metal and its long overdue and fantastic.
6. Blind Guardian – Beyond the Red Mirror:
Argh, it hurts not to see this higher, it really does. Long before I started The Metal Pigeon, I was keeping lists of my best metal albums of the year, and our bards took top honors in 2010 for At The Edge of Time, an album that I’m not afraid to speak of in the same breath as Imaginations or Nightfall. Its doubly frustrating because there’s so much awesome packed into this album that it rightly deserves to be on this list, but it has flaws that can’t be ignored. The bad stuff out of the way first? Alright, lets get this over with: I wasn’t thrilled about the production (although fellow Guardian fans have told me my contention lies mostly at the fault of the mastering job, I’m not an audiophile so I’m really flying blind on that debate) because at times the plethora of sound the band is trying to force together at once becomes a cluttered mess of layers of sound without any room to breathe. I talked a bit about this in greater detail on my hat tip to “Distant Memories” (the runner-up for Best Song of the Year), but examples abound on the album where you want the crashes to crash louder, the orchestra to swell over the guitars, or vice-versa for that matter. I also found that despite all my repeated efforts, I was unable to fully love “Sacred Mind” with its underachieving chorus despite its amazing intro section and first verse (in my original review I speculated that Hansi might’ve over-sung the chorus, I now realize that he actually under developed its vocal melody). And I think I’ve come to the conclusion that “At the Edge of Time” (with a small exception), “Miracle Machine”, and “Ninth Wave” are underwhelming —- not bad, not skip-able, just underwhelming for various reasons I don’t have the space to get into here.
But the greatness that is Blind Guardian shows up in majestic moments, though you have to put in the time to discover them, because Beyond the Red Mirror is their most inaccessible album to date, even more so than A Night at the Opera which sounds positively anthemic compared to this. Look no further than the track I just criticized as a whole for the album’s singular best moment, at the :57 second mark of “At the Edge of Time”, for which I wrote in my original review:
“Hansi beautifully dreams out the lyrics “Who’ll grant me wings to fly? / And will I have another try?”. Its a simple lyric on the surface, but its unanswerable question is evocative in the very essence of what its asking —- and Hansi’s phrasing and emotive delivery just bowls me over every time I hear it. Moments like that are what I wish I could instantly summon whenever someone asks me why Blind Guardian is so great…”
The most gloriously, Guardian-esque epic might be “The Throne”, a song that races along at an insistent clip and is invigorated with a sense of urgency in all facets. Its chorus is incendiary with the explosive manner it delivers its hook, group choirs and Wagnerian orchestral bombast working in tandem. Speaking of, “The Grand Parade” is a lot to take in, but once you do you’ll be able to separate its layers upon layers of sound to uncover the celebration the band has put to music. Its an incredible collision of the band merging together riff based song sections with choral vocal melody led arrangements, particular in the chorus where these elements seem to run perpendicular to one another —- somehow it all works. And in digging up another isolated, one-shot only example of “how did they ever dream that up?” we have “Ashes of Eternity” at the 4:23 mark, where the way they’ve written Hansi’s vocal melody during ““I won’t lie / While bright eyes are turning pale / Your sands run low” is the kind of jaw dropping moment that you get everyone in the room to shut up for (while pointing to the speaker with a goofy grin on your face of course). What can I say, its Blind Guardian —- you know this is worth listening to. Its not perfect, but its the most adventurous Blind Guardian album to date, one that will challenge you as a fan to listen closer and longer. I doubt anyone will complain about that.
7. Kamelot – Haven:
Clearly the best album of the fledgling Tommy Karevik era (if it wasn’t better than the flawed Silverthorn, we’d be talking about the possible end of the band as we knew them), Kamelot also knocked out one of the year’s strongest albums in 2015 with Haven. This is due in large part to the increased role of Tommy Karevik in the songwriting process (if you really want to dive into the meaty reasons, I’ll refer you to my original review), a tangible change that you’ll notice upon the opening moments of the album in “Fallen Star”, one of the year’s best songs. Karevik’s higher registers allows the band to return somewhat to their Karma/Epica/The Black Halo era, prompting Thomas Youngblood and Oliver Palotai to write more major key melodies, while allowing Karevik the space to fully develop his vocal melodies —- space largely denied to him on Silverthorn. So when you hear “Veil of Elysium” and think to yourself, “this could’ve been on Karma“, you’re not alone in that feeling. What makes Karevik a special vocalist is his Karevik-isms that Seventh Wonder fans are all too familiar with; for instance while singing the lyric “Now winter has come and I’ll stand in the snow / I don’t feel the cold”, his deft vocal inflections during the 1:00-1:06 mark give the line an extra dose of ache and sympathy. He’s half the fun of listening to Seventh Wonder classics like Mercy Falls and The Great Escape, having an innate sense of R&B/pop inflection that loosen up a performance a more standard prog-metal vocalist would’ve played straight.
Conversely, Karevik also sounds increasingly like himself, drifting further and further away from mirroring the Khan-esque timbre that so many people have marveled at him having. On a song like “End of Innocence” he sings in a style that I have an incredibly hard time imagining Roy Khan singing in, particularly during its chorus. It actually sounds like something that could be on a Seventh Wonder album, albeit with a little less jazzy-prog in the music underneath, and that’s what Kamelot and Karevik should sound like together. For all the praise fans were showering him with for being akin to Khan in all things, I guarantee you they’d change their minds if that’s all he ever did during his run in Kamelot. This positive change is also heard on tunes like “Beautiful Apocalypse” and the epic, yearning “Under Grey Skies”, a song that I’ve grown to love more and more for its very audacity (hey it almost sounds like a Broadway number at points, a gorgeous one at that). This is the duet with Delain’s Charlotte Wessels who proves a good counterpoint to Karevik, her high register able to sweetly swirl around his soaring tenor at the end when they join their vocals together (her performance here is worth noting, her well placed accents on specific words makes a great performance transcendent). When this album came out, I thought it would be higher up this list, but some fatal flaws exist in “Liar Liar (Wasteland Monarchy)” where the success of the aforementioned Wessels duet really puts into perspective just how pointless Alissa White-Gluz’s inclusion here ended up being. And of course there’s the abominable “Revolution”, in consideration for the worst Kamelot song of all time (and I got to hear it live in December —- it wasn’t any better and its motives were entirely transparent). Still, the future looks bright for one of power metal’s greatest acts.
8. Swallow the Sun – Songs From the North I, II & III:
I love bands with ambition, even if they don’t quite execute the way they planned or simply fall flat on their face. Finland’s doom-death brigade Swallow the Sun thankfully fell into the former category with their attempt at swinging for the fences with the monstrous triple disc work, Songs From the North I, II, & III. The band seemed to take a page from Opeth’s Deliverance / Damnation playbook and divided each chapter into a slice of their sound albeit in a more exacting manner. So we got the first chapter in the form of a typical Swallow the Sun album full of heavy / soft dynamics; a second chapter that was largely chilled out acoustic balladry (I feel like some clean electric is also used, in addition to the obvious keyboard sonics); and a third chapter that dramatically slows down the tempos, turns up the heaviness and becomes something akin to funeral doom. I wasn’t wild on the concept of the latter when I first read about the album concept but I figured it wasn’t enough to keep me away from such an intriguing project. If you read my review in the original Fall MegaCluster you’ll remember my mentioning that I wasn’t the biggest Swallow the Sun fan before this, having only enjoyed them in small fits and starts in the past. The good news is that Songs From the North changed all that, and they were able to do it largely on the strength of the first chapter aka their “regular album”.
That regular album is just about perfect too, book-ended with two brilliant tracks in “With You Came The Whole Of The World” and my album favorite “From Happiness To Dust”, the latter featuring one of the most elegiac and heartbreaking guitar motifs I’ve heard all year. Then there’s the superb duet between ‘Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamaki and guest singer Aleah Stanbridge on the dreamy, lovelorn “Heartstrings Shattering”, as devastating a treatise on emotional abandonment and loneliness as you’ll ever hear. Another favorite is “10 Silver Bullets”, possibly the most uptempo song on the album with its hypnotic opening riff sequence and its loud to really loud dynamics in the most brutal refrain that I can remember hearing in forever (its not so much a chorus as it is a good pummeling). I’ve never heard Kotamaki as wildly unrestrained and vicious sounding as he manages to come across in specific moments here, not to mention his increasingly skillful clean delivery, which is showcased far better across this and the second chapter than at any other point in his career. Oh yeah, the second, acoustic chill out chapter is also a major reason the album is on this list, because songs like “Heart Of A Cold White Land”, “Songs From the North” and “Away” are fog-drenched laments that I kept returning to throughout the year. But while I’ve been appreciating the funeral doom third disc a little more since my original review, I’m still far from liking it to a point that I’ll return to it alone. It prevented this album from being higher on this list but didn’t diminish my admiration of the band in shooting for the moon here.
9. Year of the Goat – The Unspeakable:
I think Sweden’s Year of the Goat have filled a rock n’ roll shaped void that’s existed for years and years in my conscience with their excellent new sophomore album The Unspeakable. Their ghoulish, mysterious take on occult rock with a sprinkling of metallic spice is the first band from that burgeoning movement that I’ve personally drawn a connection to, and they hit a sweet spot that has been vacated by older bands such as The Cult, H.I.M., and the recently broken up In Solitude. The latter is a great touchstone for anyone who is uninitiated into Goat’s musical orgy, as their vocalist Thomas Sabbathi shares a lot in common with In Solitude’s Pelle Ahman stylistically (Sabbathi is a little more controlled in his delivery but their timbres are pretty darn close). What separates them from the rest of their peers is just how vital, fresh, and very modern they sound. Where other bands are hell bent on emulating studio/production sounds from the 70s to enhance the throwback feel of their albums, Year of the Goat don’t particularly care if their music sounds, ya know, new.
They also don’t care about doing unconventional things, like releasing an album with a twelve minute plus track as its opener on an album full of 3 to 5 minute jams. The song in question, “All He Has Read” has aspects that sound both old school and unnervingly modern, with classic metal / NWOBHM elements folded right alongside almost metalcore riffs (don’t panic!) and a rich, textural guitar led intro that would’ve fit right at home on the last Watain album. Its an epic track, and the album is book-ended by another in “Riders of Vultures”, actually the song that I was introduced to the band with on Fenriz’s essential pirate radio show (you should be listening to this already). The latter is a smoky, slowly strutting powerhouse built on some really inspired guitar lines via Goat’s own Izzy n’ Slash, Marcus Lundberg and Don Palmroos. The lead guitar mirrors Sabbathi’s tortured vocal melody with long open-note sustains while ferocious rhythm guitar snakes its way underneath —- you could picture this being the soundtrack to some black light adorned, pole-dancer equipped, smoke cloud filled nightclub (on TV of course… *cough*). Its almost a religious experience when the song opens up at the 3:10 mark, where haunting background vocals chant their wordless refrain while a guitar solo ushers in bells of doom and presumably the bacchanal that comes with. The shorter cuts are just as brilliant, with “The Wind” getting honored on the Best Songs List, but “Black Sunlight”, “Pillars of the South”, and “Vermin” (with its charming and quirky use of cowbell) are just as magnificent. Don’t let the occult rock thing put you off, this is actually a fun album to listen to —- a heady blending of Gn’R guitars, The Cult’s hard rock strut, and H.I.M.’s dark romance (don’t let that put you off either).
10. Nightwish – Endless Forms Most Beautiful:
Such is the monumental songwriting ability of Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen that even when he fails to deliver a grand slam, he’s still hitting a home run. Said grand slam was in my estimation 2011’s Imaginaerum, an album that was diverse, colorful, surprising, epic as all get out and incredibly fun(!). It was their second effort with Anette Olzon on vocals, and it proved that Holopainen needed the space of two albums to not only find his footing writing for her ABBA-esque poppier voice, but more importantly for him to get used to writing outside of the constraints of Tarja Turunen’s operatic singing style —- a facet that defined the limits of their sound. Understanding this bit of history is crucial to putting Endless Forms Most Beautiful into context as their debut album with Floor Jansen. A valid criticism of the album is that Jansen, despite an overall strong performance, seems reserved and bottled up, forced to sing in a mid-range, pop-driven style that ignores her classical soprano abilities as well as her more rock oriented belting (although she does some of this on the album). This is by no means her fault, but I’ll argue that its not really Holopainen’s fault either, its simply a result of the difficulty in having to write for a new singer in an already established band —- you play it safer, write a little more conservatively… in other words, write what you know.
So its not a surprise that the band suggested in interviews that their new album was old-school Nightwish in spirit, more closer to their sophomore classic Oceanborn in style and spirit. It made sense not only stylistically but strategically as well, a way to write relatively direct, easily accessible songs that still allowed for their grandiose, Pip Williams fueled orchestral arrangements to flourish albeit in a more interwoven manner (as opposed to their more cinematic role in Imaginaerum and Dark Passion Play). Holopainen would benefit in being able to write songs with bright melodies, strong hooks, with space for creative ear worms all while being allowed to service his thematic lyrics above all else —- quietly the biggest reason why Jansen ended up singing in a Olzon-esque pop voice. Holopainen stated back when Olzon was introduced to the band that they chose a singer that deliberately didn’t sound like Turunen in order to avoid comparisons between the two —- but fans compared Olzon and Turunen anyway, some were even divided on loyalties. Jansen’s overall body of work suggests that she’s capable of being a midpoint between the styles of the previous two Nightwish vocalists; but Holopainen’s refusal to return to using classical styled vocals even when having the opportunity to do so is indicative of a sea change in how the band now operates, that thematic concepts dictate the music and lyrics, not their vocalist.
Still, that approach can’t ignore the fact that Jansen is new, and I think nine times out of ten a band will have growing pains adapting to it (Nightwish included, Dark Passion Play is a prime example too), but because Holopainen is so ridiculously amazing as a songwriter we still get a shimmering, rich, beautiful album. Brilliant songs abound, from “Alpenglow” to “Endless Forms Most Beautiful” to “Shudder Before the Beautiful” to the Best Songs list-maker “Weak Fantasy”. I have an even greater appreciation for the delicately folded ballad “Our Decades In The Sun” than I did when I first reviewed the album, with its transitional, stormy guitar and orchestra middle bridge at the 2:05 mark being a glorious one-shot moment that I keep coming back for. So why isn’t the album higher on the list or being hailed here as a masterpiece? Well songs like “Yours Is An Empty Hope”, “Edema Ruh”, “My Walden”, and lead-off single “Élan” are merely average to good and while I don’t skip them on a full length play through, they’re not on my iPod. But the biggest culprit is the band’s twenty-four minute mess, “The Greatest Show On Earth”, which has a little over a minute and a half’s worth of interesting music to offer (from the 12:00 to 13:47 minute mark), a hugely disproportionate ratio. It doesn’t even touch “Song of Myself” from Imaginaerum or even the slightly clumsy “The Poet and the Pendulum” from Dark Passion Play on the Nightwish epic scale, and for a song trumpeted by the band to be the album’s centerpiece, it fails utterly. It was surprising considering Holopainen’s pedigree, where was any semblance of a melodic motif? The silver lining here is that just like with Olzon or even Kamelot with Tommy Karevik, Nightwish should fare much better in their second round with Jansen… who knows, we might even hear her bust out the soprano!