Oh boy, it’s the end of yet another year, which means it is time to struggle through the arduous task of putting together a Year End List. One of these days I’ll probably stop bothering, at least with the rankings, but for now I have too much fun trying to decide.
2015 started off pretty slowly from my perspective. The first quarter saw little in the name of quality, though there were a couple lovely albums from January and February. As the year wore on, however, it seemed to get into high gear with the autumn release slate being absolutely incredible.
In terms of genre, I found that power metal was really down this year. There were a couple of highlights, and one or two lesser known bands, but the entire year felt rather absent. Prog rock also seemed to suffer a similar lapse in true quality, though progressive metal was certainly much better.
In contrast, black metal once again had a stellar year. We are truly living in a golden age of black metal. There’s innovation abound everywhere you look, while many other bands are taking older sounds and refining them for a new era. From older favourites like Panopticon, Enslaved, Sigh, or Kroda, to newer entrants such as Amestigon, Akhlys, or Lychgate, there is an incredible amount of quality coming from all over the world.
First, a few honourable mentions.
A Swarm of the Sun – The Rifts (January)
Akhlys – The Dreaming I (April)
Alkaloid – The Malkuth Grimoire (March)
Amestigon – Their (May)
Amorphis – Under the Red Cloud (September)
Arcane – Known/Learned (January)
The Dear Hunter – Act IV: Rebirth in Reprise (September)
Der Weg Einar Freiheit – Stellar (February)
Enslaved – In Times (March)
Ethereal Shroud – They Became the Falling Ash (February)
Genevieve – Escapism (October)
Grift – Syner (September)
Kroda – GinnungaGap-GinnungaGaldr-GinnungaKaos (May)
Lychgate – An Antidote for the Glass Pill (August)
Sigh – Graveward (May)
So Hideous – Laurestine (October)
Sound Struggle – Rise (September)
V/A Crepusculo Negro – Desert Dances and Serpent Sermons (July)
Alright, this is the one you’ve all been waiting for, right?
10. Steven Wilson – Hand. Cannot. Erase.
27th February – KScope
Steven Wilson is widely celebrated as one of the best musical minds of our time – perhaps even all-time. His solo career, now four albums deep, has been as lauded as his Porcupine Tree career.
Hand. Cannot. Erase., the most recent album in his repertoire, is an interesting departure from his other works. While his solo career up to this point has largely consisted of a more jazzy modern prog feeling, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a throwback to classic prog, right to the point where some parts feel like Alex Lifeson of Rush wrote them. There’s also a huge pop-influence to some of the vocal melodies, particularly on the title track.
Seeing Steven Wilson live this year for the first and second time ever helped give me further appreciation for this album. At first I wasn’t sure it would make it into my top albums list, but by year end, it had easily cemented this tenth spot on my list.
9. Blind Guardian – Beyond The Red Mirror
30th January – Nuclear Blast
Oh man did I ever go back and forth on this album. Blind Guardian are one of my favourite bands of all time, and so their first album in nearly five years was met with a lot of anticipation. There are mixed reviews, but what really sold me was, again, seeing the band live for the first time. The songs from Beyond the Red Mirror, such as “The Ninth Wave” and the fantastic “Prophecies” fit right at home alongside the classics.
I still have a few complaints, notably the mix which feels like they could have taken far better advantage of their sound, but the arrangements and melodies are too good to worry about little things like that.
Hansi Kursch is such a legendary vocalist, and his performance is just as good as ever – plus his arrangements now include full backing choirs, as if there wasn’t enough before.
Beyond The Red Mirror is a damn solid Blind Guardian album, and from those Germans, pretty much anything they do is a candidate for best of that year.
8. Yellow Eyes – Sick With Bloom
11th December – Gilead Media
This one came late in the year, but it really dropped some powerful sounds on me. Yellow Eyes create a black metal sound that summons a chilling, chiming feeling from the very base of your fears.
Sick With Bloom sounds like an unknown entity crashing through a decaying forest, while screaming inhuman languages. The guitar work is absolutely mesmerising, and the pounding drums beat the listener about the ears.
The opening track alone sets the pace, and Yellow Eyes do not let up for the entire album. Some riffs twist about like a gnarled tree while others wrap around the senses like a dark cloak of fear. The space between each song is filled with strange sounds of clanging and the what might be cicadas, yet alien – not quite right somehow.
The vocal work of Will Skarstad is vicious and spooky, matching his guitar work and the work of other guitarist SS tone for tone, especially on the terrifying “The Mangrove, The Preserver”.
7. Nechochwen – Heart of Akamon
4th September – Nordvis/Bindrune
Folk tales told around the campfire have a way of resounding with us on a primal level. Nechochwen have consistently managed to capture that sort of atmosphere on their albums, right from their debut Algonkian Mythos right up to the highly lauded Heart of Akamon.
There is much more to them than just “Aboriginal legends told around a campfire”, however. They fully immerse the listener in the culture with their lyrics and musical weavings. While the Native American tribes obviously didn’t actually make black metal back in the day, the dedication to the natural world that is found in the genre is certainly a nice home for their traditions.
The black metal is fused well with acoustic guitar and folk instrumentation that, while I am no expert on Native American culture, rings of their traditional musical patterns. The band themselves are Algonquian, so they were have a better mind for such things. The best showcases of this are “Skimota” and the amazing closer of “Kiselamakong”.
Heart of Akamon tells the tales of the peoples and the lands in a heart-felt and sincere way, and is more than worthy of this spot on the list.
6. Barren Earth – On Lonely Towers
24th March – Century Media
For those who miss the heavier side of Opeth, Barren Earth‘s On Lonely Towers is for you. While the comparison is not exact, and the Finnish supergroup fall more on the side of doom than death metal, the progressive metal flourishes come across feeling very similar. “Set Alight” is one of the songs of the year, and the crawling procession that is “A Shapeless Derelict” really hammers Barren Earth’s sound home.
This is their first album with new vocalist Jón Aldará, and he turns in a fantastic performance. His growled vocals are spot on, and his clean are a marked improvement over what the band had before.
The progressive rock influences really come to the front on songs like “Set Alight” and the Camel-influenced “The Vault”.
Barren Earth are much more than a supergroup, and will certainly make their own mark on the progressive metal world.
5. Leprous – The Congregation
25th May – Inside Out Music
“Somewhere, someone must bow”. That someone is probably bowing to Leprous.
The Congregation is yet another step in the band’s evolution, this time showcasing a tightly controlled rhythmic feeling to their compositions rather than the moody atmosphere that was all over Coal and the tech-y proggy goodness that was Bilateral.
While I still point to Bilateral as their finest work, Leprous are fast becoming a band that are beyond criticism. Einar Solberg is one of the finest vocalists in prog with his ability to conjure up incredibly compelling melodies and lyrics.
Furthermore, the guitar team of Tor Oddmund Suhrke and Øystein Landsverk have managed to harness their unique sorcery once again, though this time the real star perhaps is drummer Baard Kolstad, whose composition and execution is truly phenomenal.
Leprous are forging their own sound within the progressive metal genre, one to which it’s hard to draw neat comparisons. They honed their chops as the backing band for Ihsahn, so there is no surprise that they excel at what they do.
Songs like “Third Law” and “Slave” are masterpieces, and the chorus for “The Price” is incredibly infectious. Leprous are perhaps the greatest progressive metal band on the planet right now.
4. Caligula’s Horse – Bloom
16th October – Inside Out Music
Caligula’s Horse should absolutely be heralded as the new force in progressive metal, if they aren’t already. Their latest effort Bloom is a beautifully constructed record that showcases the best of progressive metal’s classic hallmarks, while rightfully driving it forward into a new era of prosperity.
In a year where Haken, one of the current masters, did not release an album, to get such a gem from a young Australian band is more than a treat, and to have this in the same year as the mighty Leprous is almost too much.
The vocal melodies are given equal attention as the instrumental work, and the lyrics are heartfelt and genuine. “Marigold” and “Rust are candidates for Song of The Year, and “Firelight” is that softer feel-good song that everyone has been waiting for since Dream Theater released “The Spirit Carries On”. Or at least I’ve been waiting for it.
3. Judicator - At The Expense of Humanity
28th March – self-released
A side project of vocalist John Yelland, whose other band Disforia was one of my favourites from last year, Judicator are a power metal band very much in the German style. In fact, I’d point at a specific German band, one who appears on this very list: given that this project was formed from a meeting of minds at a Blind Guardian show, it seems pretty expected that Blind Guardian would be a template for the sound.
However, Judicator inject it with an American swagger that results in a heavier hitting album than that which the bards themselves released this year.
The vocal melodies are very much akin to Hansi’s and the guitar composition is similar too, but lyrically At The Expense Of Humanity deals with personal loss and coping with the tragedy. It would not do for me to simply tell you the story that lies in here, but it is worth listening to.
Tracks like “God’s Failures” and “How Long Can You Live Forever?” ask questions and reveal the struggle of a person dealing with the death of a loved one.
At The Expense of Humanity is a fantastic album, and is absolutely deserving of the number 3 spot on this list.
2. Panopticon – Autumn Eternal
16th October – Nordvis/Bindrune
Another year, another stellar release from the prolific mind of Austin Lunn. His last album under the Panopticon name, Roads to the North from 2014, was easily one of the best black metal albums ever made. That praise makes it hard to follow up at all, but he did it just over a year later.
Autumn Eternal is less immediately memorable than its predecessor, but still has that “northern woodlands” spirit to it. The bluegrass elements that graced previous works are quite downplayed, with Austin choosing to focus more on an atmospheric black metal feeling this time around, and to my mind he accomplishes exactly what he wanted, something of an ode to the natural world that comes with autumn. The magic in the air is nicely recreated in the music of songs like “Into the North Woods” and the incredible “Oaks Ablaze”
There is also the gentle rocking of the acoustic intro track, “Tamarack’s Gold Returns”, the one spot of bluegrass that remains.
Autumn Eternal sees Panopticon once again releasing the best black metal album of the year in a year chock full of excellent black metal.
1. The Tea Club – Grappling
17th November – self-released
These guys must have been quite upset that their last album did not come to my attention until just too late for inclusion into my top 10 albums of 2012 list, because they took their time to make sure this next one was pretty much perfect.
Grappling finds The Tea Club at their absolute best, writing intriguing characters for their lyrics, and setting them to mind-blowing music. The addition of new keyboardist Joe Dorsey has only given them another dimension with which to work, fusing a feeling of both the classics of prog rock and a modern take into one truly glorious album.
From the opening moments of “The Magnet” to the closing acoustic licks of “The White Book” and all moments in between, this is a band that is operating at a level beyond what most can manage.
Grappling is complex, far more so than any of their previous outputs, and enough effort was put in to make it feel like a true cohesive whole. It is something miraculous.
And there you have it, folks! Time to send 2015 off and await the year to come.