Reading end-of-year lists is an exercise which can stir a maelstrom of emotions in the online metal community. On the one hand, some lists can unearth releases which were otherwise lost in the flurry of excellent material that emerged this year, and provide a useful tool in mopping up for those who try to keep on top of the tidal wave. On the other hand, every commenting user has a bone to pick with the list, and there is invariably a group of vigilantes who decide as arbiters what SHOULD have been on that list and in which position. To avoid this situation, I am not listing any numerical order, and instead will suggest albums which may have escaped your collective notice, or slipped your minds to give a spin. This list is divided into those who have reached the Upper Echelon and those in the Middle Echelon, with a section at the bottom for honorable mentions. Why 10 for the first, and 9 for the second? To buck the system, man.
As my first foray into the ethereal world of Alcest, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer beauty that this album was to bring to my ears. The entire entity is solid and yet flowing, each track in a logical progression through shoegazing post-rock and melodic black metal, with mastermind Neige at the center. His singing and rasping is unique and befitting, his French lyrics poignant and evocative, and his craftsmanship of melodies almost unrivaled in his field. Drummer Winterhalter also aids in this atmosphere, knowing precisely when to slip in small fills and when to blast as the storm kicks off (see “Beings Of Light”). Closing track “Summer’s Glory” pushes this sense of otherworldliness to another level as the repeated phrase “Juillet s’en vient/Notre cœur dégèle/Je me sens si léger” floats through the track. This album truly is a voyage of the soul, and feels completely appropriate no matter the season.
Recommended tracks: “Autre Temps”, “Là Où Naissent Les Couleurs Nouvelles”, “Beings Of Light”, “Summer’s Glory” | Facebook
Those who know me should have seen this coming; it was almost a given that Vanitas would end up on this list. The band’s blend of black metal, grindcore and industrial is on full-throttle in this release, and their recent taste for the avant-garde that started in Passion has not left either. Praise for David ‘V.I.T.R.I.O.L.’ Hunt can never be enough as he once again casts down the vocalists’ gauntlet: ferocious screams, guttural snarls and majestic cleans abound. Mick ‘Irrumator’ Kenney’s creativity is on similarly fine form as he treads the line between blackened riffs and grinding drums, also blending some electronic moments in wild unpredictability. The sheer groove that kicks in during “Todos Somos Humanos” is simply destructive, and it is nigh on impossible to avoid singing along on “Forging Towards The Sunset”. However, the true jaw-dropping moment occurs on closer “A Metaphor For The Dead”, where Hunt’s voice hits a pseudo-operatic level as he lies “naked and alone before the cadaver”, and the guitar melody near the end is frankly stunning. Adhering to a familiar formula yet breathing new life into it, Vanitas is an album for both new and old fans alike, in the truest sense of the phrase.
Recommended tracks: “The Blood-Dimmed Tide”, “Forging Towards The Sunset”, “You Can’t Save Me, So Stop Fucking Trying”, “A Metaphor For The Dead” | Facebook
Although blackened hardcore is certainly not a new concept, I defy anybody to find a band who do it quite as well as Black Breath. Combining black metal riffs with a hardcore sensibility instead of swinging between one way and the other is an art, and one that Eric Wallace and Zack Muijat do with seeming ease, not to mention the efforts of Jamie Byrum’s blasting on drums and Elijah Nelson’s thundering bass. Finally, the howl of Neil McAdams rounds out the package neatly, careening around the studio while still leading catchy choruses (see the title track). And then, as if to defy any forthcoming “one-trick-pony” criticisms, they hit a level of sludge on “Doomed” that practically slows to a crawl. One can only imagine how phenomenal their live show must be. Sentenced To Life is a must for lovers of spat-out teeth full of grit, dirt and a touch of blood. Now, where’s my copy of Heaving Breathing…
Recommended tracks: “Feast For The Damned”, “Sentenced To Life”, “Endless Corpse”, “Doomed” | Facebook
To say that Tommy Karevik set himself a high bar when joining Kamelot is an understatement; while filling the shoes of the iconic previous frontman Roy Khan and maintaining his role in Seventh Wonder, he also decided to design the band’s third concept album, after the double Epica/The Black Halo. Silverthorn sees a return to the band’s previous power-gothic medley in powerful form, and while opener “Sacrimony (Angel Of Afterlife)” may stray a little close to Khan territory, the rest of the album displays a unity of band members with renewed energy. Catchy choruses are plentiful, along with fantastic solos from guitarist Thomas Youngblood and keyboardist Oliver Palotai. A sorrowful ballad in the form of “Jolee” provides a welcome break in flow, and the band round out impressively in the nine-minute “Prodigal Son”, complete with Karevik’s chilling operatic highs. Silverthorn, akin to a gymnast knocked off-balance, is a most graceful recovery, as well as a delightful story-album to experience amid the music.
Recommended tracks: “Sacrimony (Angel Of Afterlife)”, “Torn”, “Falling Like The Fahrenheit”, “Prodigal Son” | Facebook
I must profess that stoner metal is not my usual go-to within the metal spectrum, but there was something about Virginian band King Giant that drew me in from first listen. The band strode on with “Appomattox”, full of swagger, with the smoky storytelling of Dave Hammerly guiding the song through to its natural close. The twin guitars of David Kowalski and Todd Ingram are well-honed, as are the Sabbathian drums from Keith Brooks and Floyd Walters’ rumble-bass. Each of the subsequent seven tales each have their own flavor to them, one of the tastiest being the enveloping instrumental “Road To Eleusis”, although “Pistols And Penance” and “O’ Drifter” are close a second and third. I’ve likened them to a fine whiskey in a review, and that still stands; the months between then and now have only made the album more potent. If the likes of Kyuss and Orange Goblin have been regulars in your stereo, then you owe it to yourself to give Dismal Hollow a spin, preferably with a dram of your finest single malt and a pack of Camels.
Recommended tracks: “Appomattox”, “Pistols And Penance”, “Road To Eleusis”, “O’ Drifter” | Facebook
These ten minutes of hardcore blew my mind. You may raise an eyebrow and ask how such a short duration had such a powerful effect, but then you haven’t heard what these two bands are doing. Skin Like Iron, first up, managed to re-ignite my love of melodic yet vicious hardcore with their two tracks “Disappear” and “The Parade”, packed with nihilistic shrieked lyrics and oddly catchy melodies amid the chaos. Both tracks are linked by feedback, making it feel more like a brief performance in your ears than anything synthetic. On the flipside, Nails introduced me to a world of sludgy hardcore I didn’t know I’d wanted. With two tracks just over three minutes in total, they play a style of music that begs a metaphor combine wrecking balls and runaway trains. Unrelenting, “Annihilation” powers through mercilessly, grinding to a sludgy halt before picking up the pace for a final hurtling crash. The latter track, “Cry Wolf”, is 24 seconds of pure pandemonium ending on a lone bark of “so go talk your fucking shit”. Music to my ears.
I must be the only person who listened to this band without knowing their primary influence Devin Townsend. As such, the bombastic and over-the-top progressive stylings of this mostly-one-man project captivated me completely from track one “Gift”, even more so given the fact it was done in a home-studio. Dan Wieten, who handles almost all the instruments and vocals, displays finesse in every aspect, even with his Coheed and Cambria-esque singing. Also in the lineup is Ryan Aldridge providing keyboards and interview samples, and several guest vocalists used to great effect. The Townsend influence is apparent on the record, although that is certainly not the only point of reference: TOE’s love of Def Leppard and extreme metal also makes its mark. The album concept tackles a challenging topic (Wieten’s drug abuse) head-on, witnessing a spiral into turmoil during “Furor” (the extreme metal emerges here) and coming out the other side into a decidedly positive and upbeat future, ending on a high note with the unadulterated anime/pop-loving “Paramount”, and effective ‘credits’ to the life-movie. Regardless of whether Devin Townsend is your style of music, The Omega Experiment is heartily recommended for all who dig grand production, grand music and a touch of genius insanity.
Recommended tracks: “Gift”, “Stimulus”, “Furor”, “Paramount” | Facebook
It wouldn’t be my list without a post-rock release, and this one was easily the most impressive that I spent time with. This Russian trio’s début, instead of following the guidelines set by the genre’s leaders, carves its own trail through a land of prog, post-rock and shoegaze and sees the band taking a whole variety of directions. “Le Garage” takes an alt-rock slant, while the technical drumwork of “Forest Of A Maniac” adds the prog element, and “Iron Flow” injects Cult Of Luna‘s sludge to the mix. As stated in my review, “I am still unable to find any concrete faults with this release, and it becomes crystal clear that twenty years of playing music has taught this band well”. The Last Twenty Years is a remarkable release that ought to push all the right buttons for post-rock aficionados. I can only hope that the next release does not require a 20-year gestation period as well.
Recommended tracks: “Calorie”, “Forest Of A Maniac”, “Stephan’s Dream” | Facebook
Sabaton – Carolus Rex
After the turbulence that the lineup of these Swedish power metallers underwent with over half the band departing, there was a question mark over the band’s future after the majority of the band left after this album was done. Fortunately, the new lineup are in full throttle onstage, and with the power of this album to match it. Kicking off with the glory ride “Lion From The North” (wordplay intended), the tracks quickly demonstrate that the songwriting has only got stronger with each release, from the thundering “Killing Ground” to the mid-paced yet empowering title track. Expertly researched with the help of historian Bengt Liljegren, the lyrics and music fit like hand in chainmail glove, regardless of whether you buy the Swedish- or English-language version. As if that were not enough, the covers of Amon Amarth, Rammstein and Status Quo add a little something extra, the former one of particular note. If Sabaton’s warring take on power metal had not grabbed you previously, then Carolus Rex is a good time to start the recruitment process.
Recommended tracks: “Lion From The North”, “A Lifetime Of War”, “Carolus Rex”, “Twilight Of The Thunder God (Amon Amarth Cover)” | Facebook
(featured in Hidden Gems)
Ever since hearing the EP version of “If The Gods Cannot Stop Me”, I knew this album would be something special. Soon enough, the New Zealand twosome unleashed their creation, a symphonic death metal monstrosity recalling parts of Fleshgod Apocalypse, later Septicflesh and Dimmu Borgir. The vocals hold a particularly impressive range, mostly of low growls although the higher register also makes its appearance. Musically, the Romantic-influenced symphonic elements are stunning, the extreme metal sections punishing, and there is enough experimentation to avoid the trappings of becoming stale. Trance elements permeate “This Temple Will Not Hold”, while “Beyond The Veil” uncovers swirling acoustics amid the death metal maelstrom. Everything flows together so naturally, that it is incredible to think this is a début album, and one I will be returning to for years to come. Despite receiving a criminally low amount of press, Cosmic Sorrows deserves to be on every melodic extreme metal fan’s shelves.
Recommended track: “Quantum Singularity”, “This Temple Will Not Hold”, “Beyond The Veil”, “If The Gods Cannot Stop Me” | Facebook
When an established sludge metal band releases a double-album of Americana-influenced alt-rock, peppered with acoustic ballads and nary a headbang in sight, some heads are going to turn. Mine was one of them, and I took the plunge after catching their headline gig in Bristol the night before their horrific crash. These events may have colored my vision of the album, but certainly in a favorable way: a sense of poignancy crept through each track, from the catchy-as-hell and thundering “Take My Bones Away” and “March To The Sea” through the stripped back campfire-rock of “Mtns.” and “Collapse” to the stunning dirge-like “Eula”. These guys are from a place called Savannah, and Yellow & Green is nothing if not a full exploration of “Savanna-rock”.
Recommended tracks: “Take My Bones Away”, “Eula”, “Mtns.”, “Collapse” | Facebook
I came across this album late in the year, but that didn’t stop it having an instant effect on my listening habits. These Cypriots blend together At The Gates-esque melodeath with American neo-thrash à la Machine Head, so it is easy to imagine the amount of riffs and solos flying around on this record. These guys inject a sense of purpose, as each track hurtles to its conclusion, with guttural growls at the helm. However, the Greek influence isn’t far away, with Septicflesh an influence and Winter’s Verge vocalist George Charalambous guesting, ensuring the record doesn’t stray too close to American or Scandinavian borders, and is living proof of the proverb “variety is the spice of life”. Punishment Unfolds shows a more focused and passionate group of Cypriots delivering an intriguing blend of metal to dissect. Just watch out for the solos.
Recommended tracks: “Arrival Of The Gods”, “As Punishment Unfolds”, “Never For The Fallen”, “Infinity Race” | Facebook
Deathgrind is a recently-acquired taste of mine, and these Austro-Swedes convey it so damn convincingly. Their sophomore Weltenschmerz lies somewhere between Behemoth and Dying Fetus, featuring tight blasting drums, grinding guitar lines and the occasional explosive death metal breakdown. Armin Schweiger fulfills his role of pissed-off frontman with ease, jumping between tough-guy barks and low growls as he unleashes German-language diatribes against society amid his bandmates’ ever-shifting tempos (“Für Gott Und Gold”). The album stays on-point and doesn’t outstay its welcome, right through to the surprisingly symphonic Hypocrisy-esque closer “Todessog”. Weltenschmerz packs a sturdy punch, and stands proudly among the classics of Austrian death metal.
Recommended tracks: “Feine Gaben”, “Für Gott Und Gold”, “Todessog” | Facebook
Usually I am skeptical of bands who rely heavily on their influences, but these Italian melodeathers may change my mind on that yet. Into The Abyss straddles the Fenno-Swedish border, drawing mostly from Dark Tranquillity (their vocalist is an occasional dead ringer for Mikael Stanne) and Sentenced, with nods to Charon and Thurisaz, although this melting pot approach works in their favor. The result is a catchy yet ferocious album blending melodeath, black (“Nightfall”) and some doom (“My Crown”) that does not claim to be original. Its strength instead relies on familiarity to ease the listener into the style smoothly, which it does successfully. Into The Abyss proves Italy is not just a country of grandiose power metal, it also shows great promise in heavier fields.
Recommended tracks: “Drag Me To Hell”, “Nightfall”, “Strength From My Wounds”, “My Crown” | Facebook
“What, Swedeath that doesn’t sound like Entombed or Dismember?!”, I hear you cry? Let me present Necrovation to you, a band just as crusty and filthy as you like your death metal, but with less leaning required now they are on their third album. Blast-off occurs from the start with “Necrovorous Insurrection”, and the band show some unconventional taste emerging in the blackened (“Pulse Of Towering Madness”) and grindcore-inspired (“Commander Of Remains”) quarters. The songs are lengthier, and so take a bit more time to develop, but when they do the artwork begins to make sense: a whirling dark tempest guaranteed to shipwreck all but the hardiest of listeners. Approach with caution.
Recommended tracks: “Necrovorous Insurrection”, “Pulse Of Towering Madness”, “Ill-Mouthed Madness” | Facebook
Thrash metal had an incredibly strong run this year, with releases from Overkill, Testament, Kreator and Destruction to name a few, but some of the best thrash came from the newer members on the frontline. Savage Messiah were one such newcomer, whose third album caused a stir when released for free at the start of this year. Melothrash was the order of the day, and this album is an excellent example thereof. Many a memorable melody fly through this record (“Six Feet Under The Gun”), no matter what speed the band choose to play at, and frontman Dave Silver has a voice to suit the music: rough around the edges but not grating on the ears. Thrash addicts who slept on this one are encouraged to give it a spin.
Recommended tracks: “Six Feet Under The Gun”, “In Thought Alone” “The Mask Of Anarchy” | Facebook
While a part of me is curious to see how a new System Of A Down album would sound, the rest of me is more than glad to hear a new slab of Serj Tankian’s eclectic alt-metal poetic musings. Harakiri is a return to the delights that Elect The Dead brought. His influences are bewildering, incorporating prog-rock moments, rapping, oriental-esque (“Ching Chime”) instruments and sometimes pure hard rock riffs. Lyrically the album follows Serj’s usual slightly Dadaist notions with political leanings, just as satisfying to read as to hear. The choruses are certainly a strong point (“Butterfly”, “Harakiri”), instantly memorable and fun to sing along to (seeing him live proved this). Serj’s voice and creativity are at an all-time high here, and fans who were disillusioned with Imperfect Harmonies will have their fears reassured by this release.
Recommended tracks: “Cornucopia”, “Butterfly”, “Harakiri”, “Uneducated Democracy” | Facebook
It seems the world has taken a while to cotton onto the gems of the Indian metal scene, and Skyharbor are certainly one of them. Falling neatly into the more ambient take on ‘djenty’ progressive metal, this double-album has more than one ace up its sleeve. First and foremost, ex-TesseracT vocalist Dan Tompkins commands first disc Illusion, putting on a stellar performance in both his singing and harsh vocals (the chorus in “Celestial” is an Ohrwurm). Secondly, the musicianship is catchy yet heavy at the same time, and wrapped in ethereal ambience that enhances the dynamics. Second disc Chaos slips to heavier climes, and showcases Sunnieth Revankar of Bhayanak Maut‘s impressive screaming in a shorter blast of, well, chaos. The band adjust to these two effectively, swaying between heavy and light with technical ease. If technical and progressive modern metal is to your taste, then Skyharbor should be high priority to check out.
Recommended: “Order 66”, “Celestial”, “Insurrection” | Facebook
More than anything else, this album surprised me. I was relatively convinced I had these Finnish melodoomsters pinned down to a certain style after their fourth album New Moon, but this album soon threw that notion window-wards. Most noticeably, there is a major increase in spoken word parts (see title track), possibly an echo of the band’s not-so-secret love of Twin Peaks. Secondly, the inclusion of ex-Nightwish vocalist Anette Olzon on single “Cathedral Walls” is a surprising success story, as is the gothic-overtoned tribute to the late Peter Steele in “April 14th”. Experimentation floats this album effectively, and for that I praise Swallow The Sun and recommend this album to open-minded doom metal fans.
Recommended tracks: “Emerald Forest And The Blackbird”, “Cathedral Walls”, “Labyrinth Of London”, “Night Will Forgive Us” | Facebook
Arms Of Tripoli – All The Fallen Embers EP
Fantastic and inventive mellow post-rock that doesn’t require a distortion pedal to get full dynamic effect. Each member makes their presence in the six tracks felt.
Sample: “Waking Eyes”
Centimani – Aegaeon
An impressive début that successfully blends symphonic black and death metal, instead of using bolt-on elements of both. Think somewhere between Ex Deo and Dimmu Borgir, via Graveworm.
Sample: “Self Aggrandizement”
Dissonance In Design – Neurotransmitting An Epiphany EP
Technical death metal sliced with deathcore and thrash metal, without jarring at any point. The instrumental closer “The American Reality” nearly eclipses the EP itself.
Sample: “The American Reality”
Electrocution – Inside The Unreal (20th Anniversary re-release)
Italian death metal with a hefty dose of the old Floridian style. If old Morbid Angel and Sepultura make you prick your ears up, and you didn’t grab this gem the first time round, ensure it’s in your collection.
Sample: “Premature Burial”
Flayed Disciple – Death Hammer
Death-thrash metal done the good ol’ way, fast and brutal with plenty of room to swing your neck, and suitably disgusting lyrics. You wouldn’t believe they’re from quaint Somerset, England.
Sample: “The Westboro Massacre”
Grand Alchemist – Disgusting Hedonism
Symphonic black metal like Arcturus et al from Norway, packed full of extravagance and unrelenting insanity. Well worth the 10 year wait.
Sample: “Créme De La Créme Collapse”
Revocation – Tetarogenesis EP
No complaints when this free download of technical yet thrashy death metal popped up. Atheist fans should be giving this a try.
Sample: “The Grip Tightens”
Tempus Fusion – To End It All
A UK prog metal band that fuses Devin Townsend and TesseracT, these guys have a promising career ahead if this début is anything to go by. Necessary listening for modern-prog metal lovers.
Sample: “Abandon All Hope”