2012 was an excellent year for music. There were so many album to listen to, and I didn’t come even close to listening to everything I wanted to, as there is only so much time in one day – but I did get through quite a bit, and I managed to eke out this top 15 albums list, with a couple honourable mentions as well as the best live release from the year.
Nechochwen – OtO
Lunar Aurora – Hoagascht
Headspace – I Am Anonymous
Gypsyhawk – Revelry and Resilience
When Woods Make Graves – This Patch of Dirt Where Nothing Grows
Beastwars – Beastwars
Top 15 of 2012
15. Eluveitie – Helvetios
I wasn’t too into this album at first, but it really grew on me in the last few weeks. Seeing Eluveitie perform the album live in its entirety may have had an impact on that as well. Eluveitie’s brand of folk metal has always been a favourite of mine, and they’re responsible for reviving my interest in the genre. Their last album, Everything Remains As It Never Was was a masterpiece and made my 2010 list. This year’s offering is deeper, more complex and more ambitious, finding Eluveitie creating a concept album on the Gallic Wars. There are times when the folk elements are almost non-existent, replaced by pure melodic death metal, and then there are passages that are pure folk music, with no metal to be found. In between, there are masterful blends of both sounds. Vocalist/hurdy gurdy player Anna Murphy has a larger role vocally, as she was more involved in the writing this time. Her voice is fantastic, and is used to great effect balancing out the raw growls from Chrigel. Eluveitie really are one of the best folk metal acts around, putting on a great show each time.
14. Mostly Autumn – The Ghost Moon Orchestra
Mostly Autumn are a prog folk band from Britain, and have been around for about sixteen years. A few lineup changes have rocked thegroup, but they’ve come out the other end to release The Ghost Moon Orchestra, an eerie, moody piece of work. Very much influenced by classic prog rock bands such as Genesis,and Pink Floyd as well as more modern acts, they’ve put together a very interesting album this year. Ghost Moon Orchestra is a concept double album about a group of ghosts and ghouls that meet around a campsite. The overall tone of the album shifts between more rock on songs like “The Devil and His Orchestra” and dark, and foreboding on “Unquiet Tears”. This album is a little overlong, and could do with some trimming. There are some moments that feel lacklustre, not necessarily bad, just uninteresting. The good moments, however, are amazing. The eerie atmospheric parts are excellent, bringing images of ghosts and spirits. It’s not a masterpiece album by any means, but I keep coming back to it for certain moments, so it makes my list.
Favorite songs: “The Ghost Moon Orchestra”, “Top of the World“
13. Sabaton – Carolus Rex
Another concept album? 2012 was clearly the year of the concept, as this is the third (out of three) concept album on my list. Sabaton are yet completely different from either of the two previous bands, being a power metal band. This album’s story revolves around the Swedish Empire, the rise of Carolus Rex as king, and the downfall of the empire. The main themes are war, as is keeping Sabaton’s usual lyrical content, but the story is told effectively. Sabaton can always be counted on for catchy chorus hooks and fist-pumping anthems, and they deliver in spades on Carolus Rex. Whether it be a slow, emotional hymn, or a blistering gallop, Sabaton always bring quality, if not variety. Carolus Rex may just be their best album to date, which is surely a great sign for this band going forward.
12. Rush – Clockwork Angels
Yet another concept album to grace my list, this one from the mighty prog rock trinity Rush, Clockwork Angels is a fantastic outingfrom the band. I’m not sure what I can add that hasn’t been said about Rush already. This, their twentieth studio album (!) follows a story about a young man in a steampunk/dystopian sort of setting, as he questions the order of things, what he was taught to believe in growing up, and his overall place in the world. It’s quite an epic tale, and one that could resonate with deeper meaning. Rush have never shied away from grander themes in their music, so they quite handily pull a story of this scope off. Musically, Rush are legendary in their skill, Neil Peart and Geddy Lee being considered among the best players ever in drums and bass respectively. Guitarist Alex Lifeson, while he may not have the same otherworldy technical talent as the other two, is still a legendary guitar player, and his creativity shines through here, with some fantastic riffs and melodies. Rush are, and always will be, one of the best and most consistent bands around, and Clockwork Angels is yet another affirmation of those facts.
11. Threshold – March of Progress
Threshold returned this year with a new album, the first with Damien Wilson back at vocals after Andrew McDermott left (and then died). Wilson is a fantastic fit for the band; his voice flows beautifully atop the guitar and keyboard work. March of Progress is also the first album to feature Pete Morten on guitar, though he’s been with band as a member since 2007. His work is excellent, dealing out solid riffs all over the album. The lead guitar work, from Karl Groom, is magnificent, especially when combined with standout keyboard sounds, creating a solid wall of sweeping majesty. Some songs go with a more grandiose anthemic feel, which works extremely well with Damien Wilson’s voice. Lyrically, Threshold have always been about science, life, politics, and the environment, and that does not change here. Progressive metal is a genre that’s been making a big comeback lately, with lots of new bands coming to fore. Threshold have been around for 20 years, and are still relevant, and making music better than most. This is truly an excellent album, and should be in my rotation for quite some time.
Favorite song: “Colophon“
10. Echolyn – Elychon
Echolyn are classic prog rock without being derivative. They formed in the early 90s and have been slogging along since then. This year they released their self-titled ninth album. It has shades of modern heavy prog bands like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater, but still maintains its own identity. Opening with a sixteen minute long epic, the album doesn’t pull punches; it is filled to the brim with memorable melodies, great lyrical content, and fantastic musicianship. There are some riffs that crank up the intensity, which are perfectly placed in between softer laid back prog rock sections. The vocalist sounds really good, which is something that can’t always be said about prog bands. Echolyn have stated that they made it a point to find a good singer, in contrast to some bands who have one only for show while focusing on instrumental work and end up not sounding very good. Echolyn are a major force in the prog rock scene, and one that will hopefully be around for many years. Echolyn is quite possibly their best album, and it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here.
Favorite song: “Island“
9. Graveyard – Lights Out
For the second year in a row, Swedish retro rockers Graveyard have made an album that landed in my top 10 of the year. Last year’s Hisingsen Blues was (and still is) my number one album of the year. This year’s offering, Lights Out, did not impress me quite as much. It’s a darker album, with less straight hooks. It’s a bit more difficult to get into, and may not be as enjoyable at first, but once you do, you’ll find an album almost as good as the previous one. The only thing keeping this from being higher on my list is the presence of some absolutely amazing releases from this year. Joakim Nilsson’s vocals are stronger than ever. His unique shrieking wail still present, but now interspersed with moments where he showcases a much improved softer more emotional side. The music is darker, though there are a couple more bluesy moments as well. The guitar sound is perfect, the tone harkening back to the 70s, but with modern production. Lights Out is another excellent release from this Swedish band, who continue to grow into true rock legends.
8. Deathspell Omega – Drought
Though technically only an EP, this release is absolutely fantastic. Good enough, in fact, that it makes its way on to my top albums list quite easily. Deathspell Omega are a very forward thinking band, constantly finding new directions in which to take their sound, while still maintaining the raging torrid base of black metal. On Drought they add doomier elements, building intense yet dreary soundscapes, and then tearing them down with furious assaults of twisting riffs and hellish vocals. “Salowe Vision” is plodding, slow, and atmospheric, whereas “Scorpions and Drought” is a blast of fire to the face. The flow between the moods is flawless, however. It feels completely natural. The release’s short length, just under 21 minutes long, makes it easier to accomplish this, but it’s still a very impressive feat. The amount of ideas packed into this short EP is astounding, once again showing why Deathspell Omega are such a force in today’s black metal scene. Here’s hoping their upcoming full length album will be just as good.
7. A Forest of Stars – A Shadowplay For Yesterday
A twisting, psychedelic, mind-warping release with a strange concept to go along with the sounds, A Forest of Stars‘ newest album catapulted them into the wider spotlight this year. A Shadowplay For Yesterdays is a mix of melodramatic and sinister and is one of this year’s finest black metal releases. The violin parts are forlorn and ring through the haze of guitars clearly. The guitars themselves are a mix between a wall of opium smoke haze, and a madness-inducing melody. The shrieks and rasps that make up most of the vocals cut through it all, like a high society gentleman making his way through an illicit opium den in 1893. Shadowplay’s concept has to deal with the struggle of a man who finds himself torn between righteousness and blasphemous sin. The music reflects this struggle, at times peaceful – if a bit eerie – and at other times diving into hallucinogenic passages of insanity. A Forest of Stars are a very unique band, one who really deserve much more attention. They seem to be getting a bit more now with this album, but still nowhere near what they should be. A Shadowplay For Yesterdays is one of the best and most creative black metal albums in a while.
6. Master’s Hammer – Vracetje Konve Na Misto
This was a year for weird and creative black metal, and no band did it better than the Czech titans Master’s Hammer. Master’s Hammer never stuck by the tremolo picked sound that most people think of when they hear the words “black metal”, but rather go with a more riff based sound. They fuse jagged riffing, off-kilter melodies, and strange otherworldly keyboards to create a brew of very potent metal, and there is a very occult ritual-like atmosphere permeating the entire release. The vocals switch between raspy growls and airy-but-eerie falsettos, and they do it seamlessly even flowing over top of each other. The guitar sounds wonderful, being murky and echo-y without being muddy. The tone is thick and roiling, and even feedback is used to great effect on the mood. Keyboard sounds are all over this album, adding odd textures, though only rarely driving the sound; on the song “Pantheismus Dobry” the keys twist and turn over each other while the guitar is mostly silent, building a very surreal spacey sound. Vracetje Konve Na Misto is a fantastic album, a compelling case for Master’s Hammer being one of the true black metal masters.
5. Diablo Swing Orchestra – Pandora’s Pinata
Possibly the most eclectic album on this list, Pandora’s Pinata is the third album by Swedish progressive avant-garde collective Diablo Swing Orchestra (DSO). They fuse huge meaty metal grooves with swing, jazz, and big band complexities. On this album they push their boundaries further, experimenting even with dubstep-type rhythms near the end. It’s no flat sell-out attempt, but a completely insane bombastic explosion of sound after a long slow buildup. Aside from that, the rest of the album reeks of barely-contained madness in addition to the insanely danceable beats that mark many of the songs. The meathead and egghead are blended perfectly with precision and care: catchy vocal hooks and instrumental melodies are all over this release; one moment you’ll be headbanging/dancing madly and the next you’ll realize you somehow missed a beat because DSO added one extra hit or note so completely smoothly that it wasn’t noticed at the time at all. Diablo Swing Orchestra have matured quite a bit since their last album, and it shows. Pandora’s Pinata is one for the ages.
4. Wintersun – Time I
I was not too excited for this album. There was so much hype about it, and I wasn’t too impressed with Wintersun’s first album, so I originally decided to let this one just slip by me. In the end I went forth and listened to it though – and it completely blew me away. Right from the gorgeous intro track and the symphonic flourishes that mark the beginning of the first section of “Sons of Winter and Stars” right through until the finish, this album is astonishing. The production is fantastic, and the composition is magnificent. There are so many layers to the music that one can find something new on each listen. Jari Mäenpää took his time (har har) to deliver this, and now we can see why. The wait between the debut and this album was completely worth it. Not to mention that Time and seeing Wintersun live made me go back and find new appreciation for the first album. Time I is a masterpiece of symphonic melodic death metal, and it’s only half of what was recorded. We won’t have as long to wait for Time II, which if it’s anything like I will be easily one of the best of next year as well.
Favorite song: “Sons of Winter and Stars“
3. Arjen Anthony Lucassen – Lost in the New Real
Hail the science fiction album. Arjen Anthony Lucassen is prog rock’s premier force in creating vast sci-fi concepts and putting them to fantastically creative music. His main project, Ayreon, has been doing this for nearly two decades, and Arjen still manages to find it in him to create his solo project album, Lost in the New Real. The album features actor Rutger Hauer of Blade Runner fame as narrator, as well as a few guest musicians, but otherwise it’s all Arjen’s own hands plying the instrumentation. The story deals with a man waking up from cryogenic sleep into a future where everything has completely changed from when he was alive and every aspect of life controlled by an almost-Orwellian like system. It details his confusion, wonder, and questions at what he sees. In the end, he isn’t sure what is real and what isn’t. Sonically, the diversity displayed is certainly unreal, from heavy modern prog rock, to psychedelic 60s prog rock jams, to folk. Arjen Lucassen is one of the greatest minds in music today, and it is a shame he doesn’t get recognition like that of Devin Townsend or Steven Wilson. Lost in the New Real is the perfect soundtrack to the dystopian sci-fi future that awaits us all.
2. Anathema – Weather Systems
This is one of those albums from which I didn’t really expect much before hearing it, and then upon listening to it, my jaw literally dropped from how good it was. Anathema have never sounded more beautiful, though their previous effort came close. The main focus on this release is the building up of the songs from singular guitar or piano lines into huge symphonic swells of emotion. Despair is present, though not in the overwhelming capacity that made previous Anathema albums so heavy to listen to. There is also hope, hope for a new love, and hope for the future and the light that it brings on the opening suite, “Untouchable”. On some songs, such as “The Lost Child”, the melancholy still overwhelms, forcing the listener to experience deeply personal-feeling tragedy even if one has never experienced such a thing in their life. The final cries of “save me! save me!” as the song builds to climax are heart-rending, and the spoken word passage on “Internal Landscapes” is a supremely depressing part. Anathema are masters of manipulating emotion, now more than ever. Weather Systems is possibly their best release overall and here’s hoping for more excellence in the future.
1. Enslaved – RIITIIR
Enslaved are one of the best metal bands in the world today. Their 2010 album Axioma Ethica Odini made number one on my list that year, and once again the Norwegian Vikings find themselves taking top spot. This is a more prog rock-influenced release than the previous album, and is arguably even better; the fusion of black metal and prog is a far more coherent whole than previous efforts, and that a band like Enslaved can keep improving even after twenty years is amazing, and yet they manage it. Their transitions between clean and growled vocals have never sounded better. The melodies, both from guitar and voice, are gorgeous. Guitarists Ivar Bjornson and Arve Isdal are a magnificent team, playing off each other amazingly well. The atmosphere is brilliantly evocative, whether it’s a darker mood, or a more ethereal one. The theme of the album has to do with the rites of man, internal journey and self-discovery. They’ve been around for 20 years, and the members are still young (Ivar is only 35) so it’s not hard to imagine this band will still be around for many more years, putting out quality albums, though how they’ll top this one is beyond me.
Favorite live album:
Steven Wilson – Get All You Deserve (live)
Steven Wilson is one of the best musical minds out there. His compositional powers are seemingly limitless, and his productionability is flawless. Largely composed of material from Wilson’s masterpiece album, Grace For Drowning, with a few from Insurgentes and one (“Luminol”) from the upcoming album, The Raven That Refused To Sing. The musicians Wilson has collected and surrounded himself with are of a stunning pedigree. The presence of Marco Minnemann on drums, Guthrie Govan on guitar, Adam Holzman on keyboards, and Theo Travis on woodwinds, in addition to Wilson himself, make for an astonishing degree of talent. Visually and aurally stunning, this release is absolutely essential for any Steven Wilson and/or prog fan.
Deathspell Omega – Drought
It made my top albums overall list. By far the best EP release of 2012.