Let’s be honest: it’s late December; all of the big publications put out their end of year lists weeks ago, and those are the only ones bands reference when talking about accolades, so for us, this is 100% an exercise in telling YOU about what we loved, in a vain attempt to get you to go and give these artists some love.
2015 has been a pretty vintage year. There’s been some really great records, and a lot of very good ones. As ever, we like to condense these into ten of the very best. In my case, some very strong cases have not quite made the cut: The Moth Gatherer‘s startlingly diverse post-metal rumblings; KEN mode‘s ridiculously unique take on the simple concept of noise; Baroness‘ compelling newest entry on the colour spectrum, Purple, only omitted by not having had time to fully unwrap it yet; and Sylosis‘ thundering year-opener Dormant Heart.
Agent Fresco – Destrier
7th August – Long Branch Records
Sometimes, a band will come along who entirely captivates a collective imagination that it’s a bit of a revelatory experience. Such has it been with the UK progressive metal scene and Icelandic quartet Agent Fresco, whose 2015 offering Destrier is pretty much the one name on everyone’s lips, almost universally.
It’s just an astounding piece of work. Across fourteen tracks there is no filler, and no repeated ideas. It’s emotionally resonant, technically astute and one of the most complete works I’ve heard in years. For the six months since its release, not a week has gone by without listening to it at least once, and most of those weeks have seen it played daily.
Coheed and Cambria – The Color Before The Sun
16th October – 300 Entertainment
Many fans of Coheed and Cambria, myself included, were dubious about the band breaking from regular prog rock space opera format. It’s served them well for the best part of two decades, but since The Afterman a lot of things have changed for the band, and in particular for chief songwriter Claudio Sanchez. Things got a lot closer to home with the birth of his son Atlas, and he felt more driven to write about his family and personal experiences directly.
Such trepidation was entirely undeserved. The Color Before The Sun is infinitely more direct than any previous CoCa album, but it benefits from this focus and the band have distilled twenty years of experience, along with heaps of emotion and songwriting chops, into an absolutely blinding record.
Two of the songs – which boil down to love songs to his wife and son respectively – form the barest examples of this album’s beauty, but there’s also a raft of riffs, massive hooks, and a fun flavour that’s not been present before – and I really, really like that.
Cult Leader – Lightless Walk
16th October – Deathwish Inc.
If you imagine stumbling around, trying to blindly navigate a pitch-black room full of barbed wire, razor blades and general malcontent, you’ve probably got a good idea of what it’s like to sit through Lightless Walk.
If you haven’t caught wind of them yet, Cult Leader were born from the smouldering ashes of Gaza, whose equally snarling, hate-filled album No Absolutes In Human Suffering made my 2012 list. Lightless Walk is the next step along the very same path, melding a breathless, thundering malevolence with all the misanthropy the four members can muster. It’s absolutely unforgiving in its relentlessness; heavy in a way little else has managed this year, and an utterly destructive force.
The Dear Hunter - Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise
4th September – Equal Vision Records
It takes something very special to keep my attention over the course of seventy-five minutes. I’m often of the opinion that prog takes far too long going about its business, and I’m much more comfortable and amenable to records that can say what they want to say in under forty.
Welcome to the exception. The Dear Hunter‘s long-awaited, long-anticipated continuation of their ongoing narrative, Act IV is a full six-course meal, and about as filling. I’m not familiar with the previous records, but Casey Crescenzo has done himself proud; it’s full of rich textures, astounding melodies and such a complete execution of concept that you can’t help but fall in love.
Good Tiger – A Head Full Of Moonlight
6th November – Self-released
Sometimes, when you spend a lot of time analysing and picking over an album for a review, it is entirely possible to overthink things. Such was the case with Good Tiger‘s infectious debut A Head Full Of Moonlight.
A supergroup of sorts, with both of The Safety Fire‘s former guitarists, journeyman drummer extraordinaire Alex Rudinger, the vocal talents of Elliot Coleman, rounded out by the supremely versatile Morgan Sinclair; I’ve gone from being impressed but not fully invested, to somehow listening to it daily. It’s the perfect small package; half an hour long, full of grace, rhythm and just the right amount of bite for a widdly prog record.
It’s just dead easy to stick on and let wash over you; everyone does their job exceedingly well, and it’s a damn good time.
Hamilton – Original Broadway Cast Recording
25th September – Hamilton Uptown
Okay, stay with me on this one. I’m no big fan of musical theatre – although I do like to go every now and then for curiosity’s sake – but gods damn, if Hamilton isn’t the most intensely gratifying thing I’ve heard in a long time, then I’ve clearly had an aneurism and forgotten something important.
The show’s writer and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda, wrote music for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as I found out watching an interview with director JJ Abrams, who raved about Miranda and Hamilton in equal measure. Cue a tangential search and falling in love with a production I might never get to see, or will at least have to wait a couple of years for it to make its way to London – but until then, I have this recording of the Broadway cast.
It tells the story of the first U.S. treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton via the medium of rap, hip-hop and a raft of other styles. Almost two and a half hours long, its two acts are a piece of unrivalled genius. The first establishes characters (who doesn’t love a concept album?), themes and motifs, and has one spectacular song after another. The second compiles all these recurring elements into telling the story of his downfall, both personally and politically, to his untimely end and the one thing most American kids will be able to tell you about him – that he was shot and died in a duel with then vice-president Aaron Burr.
Miranda and Hamilton aside, the cast are absolutely incredible, and I can only imagine (or glean from the small clips available on YouTube) what the full production is like to witness – but it’s got rave reviews, made about $30million before its Broadway stint even opened, and has been sold out months in advance. If that doesn’t tell you that Hamilton is something you at least need to give a shot, then you are more of an idiot than the damned fool that shot him.
Murdock – Dead Lung
13th April – Basick Records
I had almost given up hope of this album ever seeing the light of day. Irish trio Murdock became a bit of an obsession of mine a couple of years ago, off the back of only two songs: “Brain Face” and “The Signal In The Noise“. Both were everything I wanted from technical hardcore and more, and reminded me so succinctly of my musical coming of age. That’s a powerful thing.
But besides nostalgic whimsy, over the course of 50-odd minutes Murdock pack so much into Dead Lung - finally released in April – that it’s almost physically tiring. And it only feels about half that length – so furious is its pace – so you’ll not come away feeling short changed. The sweaty, frenetic tang of The Dillinger Escape Plan is mixed with the wide-eyed, nostril-flaring thunder of The Chariot and Converge‘s varying shades of menace into something you can be confident will leave small children in tears, your parents will call “a bloody racket”, and will probably give your nan’s heart its final marching orders.
But it’s not just aggressive; it’s also mightily varied. Jazzy interludes, mind-boggling time signature changes, and never the same bar twice make for an album you can play multiple times in a row, and after a month you’ll still find new snippets of genius to appreciate. There may also only be three of them in the band, but each member puts so much blood, sweat and skill into the record it’s a surprise they’re still standing, let alone still have any working appendages.
“If you’re not bleeding or exhausted, what’s the point?” And how.
Rolo Tomassi – Grievances
1st June – Holy Roar
I can’t find a single grievance with Grievances. It’s as if someone looked inside my head and distilled the purest essence of what I like from intelligent, aggressive music. Equal parts beautiful, complex and savage, it succeeds where many others this year have fallen short.
And the best thing is I didn’t see it coming. There’s usually been something missing from Rolo Tomassi‘s music, and whilst still young, there is a startling level of maturity across its eleven tracks, ranging from the almost orgasmically fulfilling and immediate in “Stage Knives” to the brooding and potent “Opalescent“. Every single song has something to show off about, and you just don’t get that kind of consistent quality too often.
Special mention must go to the phenomenal drumming of Tom Pitts, who mixes elements of jazz, black metal and hardcore into his performance to truly elevate the songs, but really, everyone is on their game. It’s such a complete record, covering some very distinct bases, and if you’ve not yet heard it, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Royal Thunder – Crooked Doors
3rd April – Relapse Records
Barely a year goes by without some crinkly, ageing rocker complaining that “real rock and roll” is dead and “things ain’t as good as they used to be”. The problem with this is that usually their brand of past-it rock and roll IS dead, and they don’t have the means to access the really choice new cuts.
But we do, don’t we? And Royal Thunder‘s newest, the absolutely straight-and-true Crooked Doors, is fucking choice.
It isn’t flashy. It’s not really innovative. It just does everything really, really well. You can physically feel its attitude on the appreciative eyebrow furrows it evokes; you can hear every gorgeously realised facet of its texture.
Crooked Doors is just great rock and roll, done well. Dead it definitely ain’t.
We Lost The Sea - Departure Songs
Finally, we come to the most melancholy, but certainly one of the most beautiful entries on this list. Sydney’s We Lost The Sea have endured some rough times over the years, but they say that from adversity comes strength, and Departure Songs is the embodiment of strong.
Conceptually, it pays tribute to some truly brave and selfless final acts throughout history, including the sacrifice of Captain Oates on the journey to the South Pole (“A Gallant Gentleman“), the almost foolhardy David Shaw and his descent into Bushman’s Hole to recover the body of fellow diver Deon Dreyer, and the doomed crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Despite a complete lack of vocals, the gargantuan emotion within these stories comes across completely and without obfuscation. The songs flow through sections of supreme majesty and are constructed with such acute attention to detail that you can really lose yourself in them and easily lose the hour you spend listening to the record without accomplishing anything else – but it’s certainly not time wasted or lost.
And loss is obviously a major theme. If you know anything about the We Lost The Sea, it’s clear that this record is in part a tribute to the band’s fallen former singer Chris Torpy, who took his own life in 2013. What a tribute, too; there have been few more beautiful albums this year, and although it’s last on my list, it is by no means least.