Another year older, another year wiser. One out of two isn’t bad.
Putting together a hard-and-fast list of the ten best albums (and five EPs) out of everything I’ve heard in any given year is never a completely straightforward task. This year, though, what I found was that whilst my top three were fairly obvious choices, there were at least fifteen albums competing for the remaining seven spaces. This led to some really peculiar direct comparisons in my deliberations. We don’t really do honourable mentions, but having albums by artists as diverse as Nordic Giants, Statues and KEN mode sitting just outside my top ten shows just how peculiar that thought process had to be.
Ultimately, it’s also led me to conclude that whilst 2015 was, for me, a great year for good albums, it was not necessarily a good year for great albums. That’s not to depreciate the achievements of artists both mentioned and omitted here, just to say that were I to repeat the process again, there’s every chance I’d end up with a somewhat different list.
Despite the diversity of the offerings this year, it does seem that there are a couple of other common themes running through list. Three of the releases here are by side-projects, a couple are from reactivated bands who came to prominence in the nineties and a large proportion of them are self-releases. That probably portrays me as some kind of aging hipster with a nostalgic streak. That’s probably accurate.
Anyway, that’s enough from me for now. Keep an eye out for another retrospective in the next couple of weeks, summarising my thoughts on the many (just over 250, in fact) live performances I’ve seen in 2015.
10. Gentleman’s Dub Club – The Big Smoke
12th November – Easy Star
Everybody needs to wind themselves down every now and then. And few things help that unwinding more than the right soundtrack. Gentleman’s Dub Club’s unmistakably British mix of dub and dance, honed at shows for which they have a fearsome reputation for bringing the party, is full of sing-along choruses, perky horn arrangements and huge, infectious bass grooves.
The Big Smoke is the best substitute yet for being at those shows, quickly becoming my go-to for chilling out, and is sure to be a regular accompaniment to late nights and lazy, sunny weekends for some time to come.
9. Frontierer – Orange Mathematics
30th October – Self-Release
Everybody needs to crank themselves up every now and then, and few things help that cranking more than the right soundtrack. The aural equivalent of jamming your head in a wasp’s nest and setting it on fire, Frontierer‘s Orange Mathematics is most certainly not for the faint of heart.
But fans of visceral, white-knuckle runaway train rides through dense soundscapes of unspeakable fury won’t find a wilder trip this year.
8. Lithium Dawn – Tearing Back The Veil I:Acension
5th December – Self Release
Just as Sumer did last year, Lithium Dawn have ambushed this list with a last minute run out of left field straight into my affections. Lithium Dawn take atmospheric, melodic prog metal and embellish it equally with both chunkier than anticipated riffs and some splendidly well-implemented dubby moments.
What’s more, this is only the first half of what the band intend to release under the Tearing Back The Veil project, so who knows where the second half will take us.
7. Outside The Coma – The Battle Of Being
22nd July – Outpatients Records
Apart from the reactivation of SikTh, Mikee Goodman’s other band Outside The Coma properly turned my head with their third millennium take on the crossover sound developed in the nineties by the likes of Pop Will Eat Itself and Pitchshifter. Big beats and dirty grooves underpin the twisted vocal trade-offs between Mikee and co-frontwoman Yuuri Joux, and dystiopian visions have rarely been more danceable.
6. Faith No More – Sol Invictus
19th May – Ipecac
Five years is a long time to wait for another album from a favourite band. Eighteen years is ridiculous.
A day that many – including myself – had been convinced would never come, Faith No More’s reactivation for the reunion festival circuit in 2009 ultimately led the band to write and record together again. Any fears that I may have had going into that first listen that they might have lost their mojo quickly evaporated; Faith No More certainly still have it. Sol Invictus is literally and figuratively a grown-up Faith No More album that picks up where Album of the Year left off back in 1997.
5. David Maxim Micic – Ego / Eco
12th July/16th August – Self Release
OK, this one is a bit of a cheat, but with two EPs sharing themes between them, and release dates only a few weeks apart, I can’t help but view David Maxim Micic’s latest offerings as a single entity. Possibly more completely than any other progressive metal musician, David has created his own unique sonic universe to operate within, which somehow allows blast-beats and polkas to peacefully co-exist side-by-side.
Perhaps more importantly, while exploring this universe, David never forgets to have fun with it. This is prog-metal with a smile; a timely reminder that exceptional music does not always have to be exceptionally serious.
4. Heights - Phantasia On The High Processions Of Sun, Moon And Countless Stars Above
27th April – Basick
Somehow managing to make the often cold and clinical world of intensely technical music as warm and soothing as a bubble bath, Heights‘ celestial-themed debut release on Basick Records is every bit as welcoming as it is challenging.
With barely a distorted note in sight, Phantasia On The High Processions Of Sun, Moon And Countless Stars Above balances intricate precision with the relaxed looseness of a backroom jam in a manner that’s several times harder than Heights make it look and sound.
3. Vision Of Disorder – Razed To The Ground
13th November – Candlelight Records
Back again to show the young upstarts that the collision of metal and hardcore need not end up in an unimaginative cul-de-sac of crab stances and one-note breakdowns, Vision Of Disorder’s splenetic fury is every bit as potent as when they first burst out of New York in the nineties.
As focused and devastating as an exocet strike, Razed To The Ground is another unflinchingly high quality collection of riffs and songs, and emphatic proof that not everyone mellows with age.
2. Intronaut – The Direction Of Last Things
13th November – Century Media
In 2013’s Habitual Levitations, Intronaut had quite the act to follow with their fifth album, but it’s a challenge that they have met with ease.
Improbably recorded in just four days of live sessions, then handed over to Devin Townsend for mixing, The Direction of Last Things is a seamless, labyrinthine journey through sludge, prog and tech-metal from low-down gut-churning riffs to lighter-than-air jazzy interludes. Now possessing probably the single most talented rhythm section in all of metal, Intronaut are right in the vanguard of bands making progressive metal genuinely progress.
1. Agent Fresco – Destrier
7th August – Long Branch Records
2015 was, for me, unquestionably The Year Of The Fresco. As well as getting to see them play a total of four outstanding live sets, in Destrier Agent Fresco released not only my favourite album of the year, but of the last two years, if not longer.
Instantly accessible, but with layer upon layer of complexity, exemplary musicianship from all four members, powerful dynamics and rich, vivid lyrical imagery, Destrier really is the complete package.
5. Core of iO – Part IV: Callisto
2nd May – Self-release
Another year, another great EP from Core of iO. – and there’s every chance this is a trend that will continue.
Continuing to hone their sound, they weld tech-metal intricacies to upbeat and perky, almost punky song structures. With hooky, instantly memorable choruses and spidery riffs played with an unmistakable sense of fun (which screams even louder from their excellent video below), Core of iO’s music is hugely enjoyable and positively charged, in every sense of the phrase.
4. Zoax – Is Everybody Listening?
9th February – Century Media
February feels like a long time ago now, but Zoax’s second EP still gets a regular airing in this house as we eagerly await their first full-length, which is currently being recorded as I write.
Whilst the band have been building a fearsome reputation on the basis of their kinetic live shows, it shouldn’t be forgotten that those performances are built on a rock-solid foundation of great song-writing – and Is Everybody Listening? contains five great reminders of that.
3. Plini – The End of Everything
11th March – Self-release
2015 was a big year for the Sydney-sider guitar wunderkind Plini. Pulling in luminaries like Marco Minneman and Jakub Zytecki to contribute to the third instalment in his trilogy of EPs, as well as luminaries like Mike Malyan and, er, Jakub Zytecki to play a triumphant set on the other side of the planet at Tech Fest, this was the year Plini really stepped out of his home studio to meet the international fanbase he has steadily been accumulating.
The End of Everything is another beautiful display of seemingly effortless virtuosity at the jazzy end of the prog-metal spectrum that proves all of the attention he has been getting is absolutely deserved.
2. Poly-Math – Reptiles
16th February – Lonely Voyage
With just three guys, a small army of effects pedals and possibly the most appropriate band name of all time, Poly-Math kick out improbably dense slices of in-your-face, noisy math-rock.
Coming across like the bastard lovechild of Battles and Dub Trio, their often bass-driven, high-octane songs walk that delicate tightrope between groovy and glitchy with considerable flair.
1. A Trust Unclean – Reality Relinquished
7th August – Self-release
Deathcore simply has no right to be this damn groovy. Reality Relinquished may well be here to rip you to shreds, but it’ll make sure you’re banging your head while it does so.
After blasting hard enough to peel paint, the drops hit with the devastating force of a train running headlong into a cliff face. With barely a single weak moment in its twenty-minute run time, it proves A Trust Unclean to be the lean, mean riff machine they always promised to be.
And that’s it for another year. See you on the other side!